BRITAIN could provide logistical support for US strikes to combat insurgents involved in the deepening crisis in Iraq, Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith has said.
The Work and Pensions Secretary’s comments yesterday came amid reports of a Cabinet rift over how strong the UK support for any US military action should be.
Mr Duncan Smith said “we have got to do what we can” to support the US if president Barack Obama takes action against the extremist militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
He suggested support for the US could take the form of supply and maintenance, but the government has repeatedly ruled out military intervention by British forces.
Last week, the US president said he was prepared to take “targeted and precise” action in Iraq. Up to 300 military advisers to help train and advise Iraqi forces will be deployed to the country to counter rapid advances by Isis, which has captured swatches of northern Iraq this month. He held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shiite-led government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr Duncan Smith, who was leader of the Conservative Party at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said that lending logistics support was a possibility.
He said: “We have to do what we can to support the Americans. The government has said it’s not going to be doing any air strikes or putting soldiers into Iraq but I think there are lots of other things we can do to help support them – make sure they get the right spare parts and support in maintaining those kind of aircraft and equipment and also support the Americans where they need it in terms of supply, et cetera.”
Asked if British bases could be used, Mr Duncan Smith pointed out that an “awful lot of Iraq” was not being run by Isis, indicating that bases in that country could be used.
He added: “The government’s position has been quite clearly that we will do what we can to support what the Americans want to do in terms of this. We are not going to be, as I understand it, joining them.
“But what we will be doing is helping the Iraqi government and helping the Americans to stabilise the situation.
“We should be in no doubt that Isis are a really nasty, brutal operation.
“We have seen some of the dreadful pictures of what they have been doing in the cities and towns that they control.”
However, a split is reported to have developed within the Cabinet over how much support the UK should be prepared to offer Mr Obama if he does decide to launch air strikes.
Opposition to providing support for the air strikes was led by veteran Tory minister Ken Clarke, backed by Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi, Commons Leader Andrew Lansley and Liberal Democrat ministers.
But Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is reported to have told the Cabinet Britain should keep open the option of backing US air strikes and at the National Security Council made clear he thinks the UK should “absolutely be doing anything the US asks”.
Chancellor George Osborne is said to have warned the Cabinet that Britain’s interests are at stake because the conflict could drive up oil prices – an intervention seen by his colleagues as evidence that he wants all options on the table.
Their position is thought to be supported by Education Secretary Michael Gove and Culture Secretary Sajid Javid.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “If Isis was to eventually take over Iraq that could cause complete chaos in the Middle East, that would affect us even indirectly in terms of the cost of running our country. The West would suffer dramatically, that’s the shallowest part of it. The reality is it’s a very dangerous situation.”
Mr Duncan Smith insisted “we are not giving open-ended commitments”, but added: “What can you do right now?
“The answer is you have to try and help support the government, in this case the Americans have made it clear what they want to do and we need to help support them to stabilise the situation at the very minimum.
“In other words, stop any further advance by Isis, before then figuring out exactly how Isis can be pushed back and these issues with regards to the poor governance can be resolved.
“There is a lot going on there that matters enormously to this country, not just in economic terms.
“We have such a lot of young British men, for the most part – and some women I gather – out in Syria and now in Iraq.
“This is going to pose us huge threats for those people returning, causing chaos here in the UK. So we really have to try and help resolve this, difficult though it is.”
He said Mr Maliki’s “decision to try to cut the Sunnis out of the government” was at the root of the problem.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “That was not the original plan, that was not the original constitution.
“In other words, there needed to be co-operation between the majority Shia and also the Sunnis.
“I think this has left the Sunnis, in particularly the north of Iraq, feeling disenfranchised and open territory really for the extremist groups like Isis to operate in.
“What we have to do is first and foremost to help the government to stabilise the situation, resolve the issue right now.”
Mr Duncan Smith’s words came as the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed strong opposition to intervention in Iraq by the US or any other country, saying Iraqis themselves could bring an end to violence there.
The official state broadcaster IRNA reported that the Iranian leader, who has the last word on all matters of state, added in remarks to judiciary officials that he believed Washington intended to keep Iraq under its control and place its own “stooges” in power.
The conflict there, he said, was not sectarian, but was really between those who wanted Iraq in the US camp and those who sought Iraq’s independence.
He added: “We are strongly opposed to US and other [countries’] intervention in Iraq.
“We don’t approve of it, as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition. And God willing, they will do so.”
Referring to an Iraqi parliamentary election in April, he added: “America is not pleased with the ongoing [political] process in Iraq, meaning the wide participation in the elections and selecting their own choice [of representatives], as the US is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges.”