British warplanes will take to Iraqi skies for 'surveillance' missions
Britain was edging closer to direct military action in northern Iraq last night as the Government announced that Tornado fighters would take to skies over the country for the first time since 2003.
David Cameron is also considering arming Kurdish fighters taking on the forces of Isis, who call themselves Islamic State, and Downing Street has not ruled out putting British troops on the ground to provide safe passage for thousands of people trapped on an isolated mountainside.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against Islamic militants in Iraq. The US previously insisted on selling arms only to the Iraqi government.
The increasingly grim situation was underlined yesterday when an RAF C130 transport plane had to abort its aid drop of water and supplies to desperate refugees for fear the bundles would strike the crowds of people who had congregated on the ground to receive them. "The crew made the responsible decision not to carry out the air drop to ensure that the lives of those in the area would not be put at risk," said an RAF spokesman.
The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond continued to insist the Government did not "envisage" a combat role for British forces "at present". But a meeting of the Government's emergency response committee Cobra authorised the deployment of "a small number" of Tornados.
Downing Street said they would be used in "surveillance capability to help with the humanitarian effort".
However, the Tornados do have the capability for air strikes.
The meeting also agreed the Government "should look at how the UK could play a role" in getting equipment to Kurdish forces so they are "better able to counter [Isis] forces".
Until recently the Government had ruled out arming the Peshmerga fighters and the announcement yesterday reflects a similar change of policy in Washington.
For the first time the Government also said it might be prepared to send British troops in a humanitarian capacity to help secure the passage of the refugees out of the range of Isis fighters. This might be done under the auspices of the United Nations.
Iraq's new President appointed Haider al-Abadi as the Prime Minister yesterday.
However, current PM Nouri al-Maliki is reluctant to give up his desire for a third term despite military defeat and the Shia coalition that is turning against him.
Mr Fouad Massoum gave moderate Shia Mr Abadi 30 days to form a new government.