The UK will not be “dragged into a war in Iraq”, ministers insisted as the government defended its decision to move beyond simply providing humanitarian aid.
David Cameron said the government has a “fully worked through” strategy to tackle Islamic State (IS) extremists and argued that limited action was needed to prevent violence spreading to British streets.
The prime minister said the UK was ready to provide arms to Kurdish fighters who were the “first line of defence” against the “murderous extremists” of IS in northern Iraq.
Mr Cameron, who cut short a break in Portugal earlier this month to respond to the emergency, is expected to head to Cornwall for another holiday this week but insisted he will be able to manage the government’s response to the crisis from there.
“Wherever I am, wherever I am in the world I am always within a few feet of a BlackBerry and an ability to manage things should they need to be managed,” he said.
He maintained his resistance to recalling Parliament to debate the crisis, saying it was unnecessary as “we are not contemplating things that would require that”.
With the US carrying out air strikes against IS forces, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon revealed at the weekend that the RAF had now deployed the Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft alongside Tornado jets to provide vital intelligence on extremist movements across Iraq.
But Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who chaired the latest meeting of the Cobra committee, sought to allay fears about mission creep by stressing there were no plans for combat troops to return to Iraq.
He said: “The priority is the humanitarian situation. There are huge numbers of displaced persons, there are persistent stories of atrocities being committed against people who are fleeing from the violence that’s going on, that has to be our number one priority.
“But we are also clear that we face a shared threat with the Iraqi people from IS and its particularly despicable brand of hate preaching. We have to rise to that challenge; we have to deal with it. We will, if requested, provide support to the Iraqi government.
“The prime minister has been very clear that this is not about being dragged into a war in Iraq, we will not be putting combat boots on the ground.”
Labour and senior Church of England bishops have complained that the government has no “coherent or comprehensive approach” to Islamist extremism and is failing to protect Christians from persecution.
But Mr Cameron said yesterday: “We do want to have, and we do have, a fully worked through strategy for helping allies to deal with this monstrous organisation, IS.
“So we are helping the Kurds, we are working with the Iraqi government to make sure it is more representative of the whole country and, of course, we are working with neighbours and allies to put the maximum amount of pressure on IS.
“We have said that if the Kurds, the Peshmerga, want to have arms from us, that is something we would consider favourably.
“Up to now they have not been making that request.”
He warned that IS had already started inflicting “damage here in Europe”, highlighting a shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels.
“We have already had the first IS motivated attacks in Europe; for instance, the dreadful terrorism that took place in Brussels just a few weeks ago.”
However, he stressed: “I want to be absolutely clear: Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq. We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British Army.”