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MPs prepare ground for air assault on Isis

Syrian raid could be next after Iraq action authorised

By Andrew Grice

British air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq will begin within days after MPs approve military action today, as ministers admitted that UK intervention could last two or three years.

After an emergency six-and-a-half-hour Commons debate, MPs look certain to vote overwhelmingly to support bombing in Iraq.

Although today's motion will promise another vote before airstrikes are extended to Syria, there are growing fears at Westminster of "mission creep". Some Conservative MPs are already calling for bombing in Syria because Isis is active there and does not recognise the border with Iraq.

A special cabinet meeting unanimously backed David Cameron's plan to deploy UK air power following a request from the new Iraqi government. The cabinet was briefed that airstrikes would start within days of the Commons vote. After an initial blitz, there would probably be a pause because the number of fixed Isis targets is limited, following the same pattern as France's bombing campaign.

Yesterday, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said he was "asking the question" whether his country's campaign should extend from Iraq to Syria.

Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, raised the prospect of "a long drawn-out campaign". Interviewed by Parliament's The House magazine, he did not distance the UK from the "two to three years" estimated by John Kerry, the US secretary of state.

Hinting that action in Syria could follow, Mr Fallon said the UK needed to help the Iraqi government first. He accepted that Syria was different but added: "We shouldn't resile from direct military action if Isis is going to be defeated. This isn't about containment. This is about the defeat of Isis."

Asked whether action could follow in Syria, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, replied: "We haven't ruled out anything for the future."

Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not rule out eventual action in Syria but are not prepared to support it now because the Assad government has not requested intervention.

In return for their support in today's vote, Mr Cameron accepted a Commons motion which "does not endorse UK airstrikes in Syria as part of this campaign" and says the Government "will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations." Mr Cameron could not risk a repeat of the humiliating Commons defeat he suffered on intervening in Syria last year when Labour refused to back him.

In an echo of the 2003 Iraq War, Downing Street published a summary of the legal advice given by Jeremy Wright, the Attorney General, to yesterday's cabinet meeting. It said: "The Government is satisfied that the consent of Iraq... provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets to take military action to strike Isis sites and military strongholds in Iraq."

Bob Stewart, a Tory MP and former British commander in Bosnia, said ground forces might have to be deployed.

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