Details of Iraq deployment urged
Ministers have faced pressure to provide more details of a significant escalation of British military involvement in Iraq after it was announced hundreds of troops would be sent to aid the battle with Islamic State (IS) militants.
The additional deployment of UK personnel will take part in the training of Iraqi and Kurdish forces , Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said. Details of the contribution to an international mission were still being finalised but are expected to include a small protection contingent of combat-ready British soldiers at four US-led "safe" centres.
The move represents a significant swelling of the 50-strong British force presently engaged in preparing Iraqi and Kurdish fighters for a new phase of the fight to retake swathes of territory seized by the jihadis.
Labour demanded clarity on the "scale, scope and timeframe" of the mission to ensure there was "no misunderstanding about the role of British troops in Iraq" as critics warned it was the first step towards putting boots back on the ground there.
RAF planes have been heavily involved for several months in air strikes and reconnaissance missions across Iraq which have forced IS fighters to switch tactics and lay low in towns and villages - requiring a ground offensive, Mr Fallon told the Telegraph.
But with international allies unwilling to countenance another direct intervention by Western ground troops, the focus is on ensuring local forces are sufficiently trained and equipped to mount an effective offensive against the extremists - also known as Isil.
A big element of the UK contribution will be passing on the experience gained during the 13-year war with the Taliban in Afghanistan in dealing with roadside bombs and other explosive devices, Mr Fallon suggested.
"We have not finalised numbers yet - obviously we have got a lot of kit back from Afghanistan that we can make available - but we are talking very low hundreds," he said.
IS fighters were "increasingly tucked away in towns and villages" as a result of the air strikes, he said. "That means they have got to be rooted out by ground troops. This has to be done by an own-grown army, not by western groups."
He stressed that the training centres - one in Kurdistan and three near the Iraqi capital Baghdad - were " not where the fighting is". "They are in safe areas but obviously there's always a small element of force protection," Mr Fallon added.
IS controls large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria where they are waging war with the aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Labour MP Graham Allen said the escalation represented exactly the kind of "mission creep" opponents of the initial engagement had feared - and suggested MPs be asked again to give their approval.
"My anxiety is that we are just getting sucked into something again without having thought through what the end game is, what the exit strategy is.
"If they are going to up the numbers then should Parliament be informed and vote? Does this constitute an escalation?"
Mr Allen said he feared that if troop numbers could be significantly raised without Parliament's approval then the extension of operations to Syria could be too - something specifically excluded from the Commons motion approving action to Iraq.
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker gave the Opposition's backing to " steps taken by the international coalition to assist Iraq's government in responding to Isil".
But he added: "The Government should provide clarity about the scale, scope and timeframe of the deployment of these further trainers.
"The Defence Secretary should clearly outline the numbers of military trainers involved and the work that they will be doing, so that there can be no misunderstanding about the role of British troops in Iraq."
IS militants earlier shot down an Iraqi military helicopter near Samarra using a shoulder-fired rocket launcher.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: "'No boots on the ground' we were told. 'No mission creep' we were promised. This lot just can't help themselves."