BRITAIN’s third war in Iraq in 25 years began yesterday when two RAF fighter jets armed with laser-guided bombs and missiles successfully completed the UK’s first military mission against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq.
The two Tornado GR4 fighters jets took off from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus at 8.30am and were followed a few minutes later by a refuelling aircraft.
The Tornados, one of which had a female pilot, returned seven hours later having gathered surveillance photographs but without launching an attack on IS forces.
Last night the Ministry of Defence said that “no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack” by the two warplanes but that the crew carried out “armed reconnaissance operations”.
The first, of what is expected to be dozens if not hundreds of sorties, came less than 24 hours after MPs committed Britain to an armed campaign against IS militants in Iraq. On Friday MPs voted 534 to 43 in favour of supporting military action against IS in Iraq.
The MoD statement, which refers to IS by an alternative name, Isil, said: “Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft, currently deployed in Cyprus, have been flying intelligence gathering missions over Iraq for a number of weeks.
“Today, following the parliamentary approval given yesterday, in company with other aircraft from the international coalition, two Tornados conducted armed reconnaissance operations over areas of Iraq where the terrorists threaten the civilian population.
“Although on this occasion no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft, the intelligence gathered by the Tornados’ highly sophisticated surveillance equipment will be invaluable to the Iraqi authorities and their coalition partners in developing the best possible understanding of Isil’s disposition and help acquire potential targets for future operations, either by aircraft or Iraqi ground forces. Furthermore, we know that the very presence of coalition airpower over Iraq has a significant impact on Isil’s efforts to attack the Iraqi people.
“With no effective defence against air strikes, and knowing the precision with which coalition aircraft can hit them, the terrorists are forced to be much more cautious, keeping their forces dispersed and movement inhibited.
“They also know that should they concentrate to deliver an attack against Iraqi or Kurdish troops, aircraft are likely to arrive overhead very soon afterwards.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said British aircraft were there to “play our part” in the international coalition amassed against IS. Cameron, who was speaking yesterday during a visit to Didcot, Oxfordshire, ahead of the Conservative Party conference, said: “We are one part of a large international coalition.
“But the crucial part of that coalition is that it is led by the Iraqi government, the legitimate government of Iraq, and its security forces. We are there to play our part and help deal with this appalling terrorist organisation.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the aim in Iraq was to “push” IS out of the country and improve security within its “existing borders”.
He said: “You should not expect immediate shock and awe – a wave of fighters or bombers taking off.”
Fallon said that the presence of at least two British hostages who are thought to be being held by IS, John Cantlie, a journalist, and Alan Henning, who was delivering humanitarian aid to Syria, would not alter the government’s plans in the area.
He said the UK would not allow “overall strategic decisions” to be affected by the plight of the men and added: “Both those lives, very sadly, are in danger anyway.”
The United States has been carrying out air strikes in northern Iraq since mid-August, and has been supported by the French since last week. About 40 countries in total, including several from the Middle East, have joined the US in taking action against IS.
Yesterday Sir William Patey, a former UK ambassador to Iraq, said British air strikes in Iraq would “free up” US forces to hit targets in Syria after IS had “pulled up the borders” between the two countries.
He said: “Six Tornados will have a niche contribution to make, but nobody’s arguing that it’s going to make a decisive shift in the air war or in the situation. Its significance is that Britain politically is joining the US and France and the Gulf Arab countries, and Jordan, in signalling its intent to stand beside the Iraqi government and the Kurds and others to try to defeat Isis.
“The political significance is greater than the military, in my view.”
Yesterday US warplanes struck jihadist positions near the Turkish border for the first time. On Friday night and in the early hours of yesterday, bombs were dropped by US aircraft on IS fighters besieging the Syrian town of Kobane. In recent weeks as many as 150,000 civilians have fled the town and surrounding areas after IS set up strongholds a few miles to the south and six miles to the east. According to Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the strikes destroyed two tanks, however following the air attacks the town was later shelled by IS, wounding several civilians. The Pentagon yesterday said the operation was also supported by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
IS now controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq and uses the Syrian city of Raqqa as the capital of what the terrorist group regards as a caliphate, a new Islamic state. Its military might is estimated at between 20,000-80,000 fighters, including a number of British jihadists.
Its armoury according to reports extends to 30 Soviet T55 tanks, ten Soviet T72 tanks, some Black Hawk helicopters and hundreds of pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns. The threat to RAF fighters could come from surface-to-air missiles.