THE BRITISH Army has been asked to station as many as 20,000 troops in Iraq for at least three-years as part of an occupying force which will back the new Baghdad government being planned in Washington.
The Scotsman has learned that the Ministry of Defence is drawing up plans to patrol Iraq on the assumption that the United Nations will not be involved.
This suggests that a fifth of the army’s strength will be in the Persian Gulf. This would leave Britain with a peacekeeping bill of at least 400 million a year - four times that of Kosovo.
The Ministry of Defence has been asked to plan for a full contribution to the occupying force of up to 200,000 troops which will back the regime led by the United States when it starts work on a military government.
"We’ve been told to work on the assumption that we will have to keep troops there for at least three years, and possibly longer," a MoD source has told The Scotsman.
The plans, being kept confidential on both sides of the Atlantic, would see Baghdad drawn into sectors: one patrolled by the US; one by Britain; and the rest by other members of the occupying force.
Canada and Australia have so far promised to commit troops to an invasion, even without a UN mandate, but plans for their role in an occupation have not yet been decided.
Britain’s occupation force and the army’s armoured division, led by Major General Robin Brims, is expected to be given control of a sector of Baghdad. Its infantry units will allow intensive patrols in urban areas.
The Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade, under Brigadier James Dutton, would work with the US Marine Corps sector in the south of Iraq, centred on the port city of Basra.
Lieutenant General James Conway, of the US Marine Corps, will be asked to secure Iraq’s major oil fields - many of which are expected to be set alight by Saddam’s retreating forces.
Lt Gen Conway will also be responsible for containing the predominately pro-Iranian Shiite population.
Britain’s proposed role in the occupation force shocked anti-war Labour MPs. Alice Mahon, the Halifax MP, said: "We’re being told that it would all be over in eight days - this is three years. It would be nice if the Prime Minister shared these plans with us. We are the ones who are supposed to be in a democracy."
Jeremy Corbyn, the Islington North MP, a hardened opponent of the war, said the occupation plans fit with the numbers of the troops deployed so far. "I always expected an occupying force, but 20,000 is as much as we ever had in Northern Ireland even at the height of our troubles," he said.
"I fear they will be there for a lot longer than three years. This all goes to show what a terrible decision this country is about to make."
Tony Blair yesterday introduced a new argument for invading Iraq, claiming a show of strength was necessary if Britain is to use military threat to avoid conflict in future.
The countdown to war will continue tomorrow when Colin Powell, the US secretary of state is to make public intelligence which is expected to show proof of the Iraqi leader’s weapons programme.
He is understood to have been working to declassify intelligence reports about mobile biological weapons laboratories to show that Saddam is openly defying the UN and preparing for possible attacks on the West.