British to lead new hunt for bin Laden

Key points

• 5,000 UK troops to leave Iraq for Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden

• UK commanders believe Iraqi forces nearly ready to take on security burden

• Scots soldiers expected to spearhead move; forces' composition undecided

Story in full BRITAIN is preparing for a major redeployment of troops stationed overseas, withdrawing thousands from Iraq and boosting its military presence in Afghanistan.

Military sources say 5,500 troops will be pulled out of Iraq within the next 12 months, reducing the British presence there by almost two thirds.

Defence sources have told The Scotsman that Britain is preparing to spearhead a new offensive in Afghanistan next year, sending 5,000 troops into the country to lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden and tackle the country’s opium trade.

Military commanders in Iraq believe the campaign there has "turned the corner" and the country’s own security forces are now able to take on a greater burden of the struggle against the insurgency that has gripped Iraq since the United States-led invasion two years ago.

Tony Blair hopes this will allow some 5,500 of the 9,500 strong British garrison in Iraq to be withdrawn by April next year, with the remaining troops being pulled back out of harm’s way to a small number of remote desert bases away from population centres.

Afghanistan is to be the British military’s "main effort" during 2006, according to army officers who say it is hoped that Iraq will have calmed down enough by the spring next year to allow resources to be switched to the new campaign.

The US military has reported a major drop in casualties in Iraq during March with only 33 hostile deaths among coalition forces, but some military sources suggest that the latest outburst of optimism about Iraq may be misplaced and designed to help Labour’s prospects in the coming general election.

Hundreds of Scottish soldiers are expected to spearhead a major deployment of 5,000 British troops to Afghanistan next year in a bid to stabilise once and for all the war ravaged central Asian country.

Some details of the additional troop deployment have already been announced, including the dispatch of the British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) headquarters to take over command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul from May 2006.

For a year some 500 staff officers and other specialist troops of the ARRC will oversee moves to further expand the authority of ISAF throughout rural Afghanistan, clamp down on the country’s illicit heroin harvest and take over part of the hunt for the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network from US forces. As the ISAF "lead nation", the UK is expected to provide a significant number of force troops including squadrons of Apache attack and Chinook transport helicopters, logistic troops and medical units.

Military sources also say a large contingent of Special Air Service troops will also be dispatched to reinvigorate the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The majority of the extra British troops are to be drawn from the elite 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Canterbury-based 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are to play an important part in new Afghan deployment, according to defence sources.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman told The Scotsman that the exact composition of the force being sent to Afghanistan had not yet been finalised.

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