MoD refuses plea for more Basra troops
• MoD refuses reinforcements because of fears it will undermine case for cuts
• British forces reduce Basra patrols because of lack of manpower
• Iraqis in charge of security but UK forces expected to stay for some time
"We can’t do anything without proper security and you can’t have that unless the proper number of troops are deployed" - Brigadier Alan Alstead
Story in full REQUESTS from British commanders in Iraq for reinforcements to cope with an upsurge in violence have been rebuffed because it would be too politically embarrassing at a time when the Ministry of Defence is proposing to make sweeping cuts to the armed forces.
British commanders have repeatedly asked for additional forces to back up those already in southern Iraq, only to find their requests falling on deaf ears. Privately, some officers serving there believe the security threat is being downplayed by the MoD to avoid having to send out extra troops.
After three deaths in as many weeks, British forces have reduced their patrols in Basra to the limited areas around their bases to avoid further confrontations with militants.
Some senior officers are unhappy that they do not have enough troops to bring the situation under control. They are barred from speaking out publicly but one former senior officer with recent experience of the situation in southern Iraq said there was mounting frustration with the MoD.
Brigadier Alan Alstead, a regimental trustee of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and chairman of Mercy Corps Scotland, an aid organisation still trying to operate in Iraq despite the instability, said serving officers had told him the MoD feared sending more troops would undermine the case for cutting infantry battalions. "We can’t do anything without proper security and you can’t have that unless the proper number of troops are deployed," he said.
He said he was alerted to the problems through his work with Mercy Corps and through his military contacts. Security had deteriorated so that it was no longer safe to billet Mercy Corps staff in the country, he said. They could only operate under extremely difficult circumstances, a situation he blamed on a shortage of British troops.
Responsibility for security has largely been handed over to the Iraqi police and national guard but British commanders have long accepted that their presence will continue to be needed. Earlier this year, Brigadier Nick Carter, the commanding officer of British forces in Basra, told The Scotsman that coalition forces would be needed in Iraq for years and people were living in "cloud-cuckooland" if they thought it was possible to create overnight a police force that was accountable to the population.
Yesterday, Brigadier Alstead said he and other serving officers believed the MoD’s attitude was coloured by its decision to get rid of four infantry battalions, including one Scottish regiment, as part of defence cuts proposed by the chief of the general staff, General Mike Jackson, and the army board. "People in the Ministry of Defence are being driven by General Jackson and the army board. They need to hold the levels [of deployment] because we’ve got these cuts coming and it will look bad," he said.
"Senior officers are afraid to be quoted. They know if they are, their career is at an end."
He said officers had told him they knew of requests for an additional battalion of soldiers, for a full divisional headquarters, and for some tours of duty in Basra to be extended, but all requests were rejected - or "reshaped" - because the MoD had "unjustifiably" played down threat levels in the hope that they would not have to send out more soldiers. "It has been what they can get away with," he said. "Their attitude is that these people will have to survive."
The government has faced previous accusations about overstretch in the army, and about the shortage of available troops to fulfil the commitments taken on by Britain. Critics of the MoD suggested that the deployment of the Black Watch to Iraq for the second time in little over a year demonstrated how thinly British forces were stretched.
But yesterday Captain Donald Francis, spokesman for British forces in Basra, said he was unaware of any requests from senior officers for additional troops, and he said the difficulties were easing.
"The situation in Najaf has calmed down and similarly in Basra," he said. "It is a full vindication of our tactics."
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