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UK 'stepping up' troops in Iraq

Britain is "stepping up" its military presence in Iraq, with troops being sent to help local forces in the battle against Islamic State, the Defence Secretary has confirmed.

UK forces will offer further training to Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Michael Fallon said.

It marks an expansion of UK involvement in the campaign, after a "small specialist" team was sent to instruct Peshmerga in the northern city of Erbil last month.

During his first visit to Iraq, Mr Fallon told the BBC: "We are going to be stepping up our training effort. I can't give you precise numbers. I'm here to evaluate training needs and there are areas of expertise, particularly in counter-IED, roadside car bombs, where we can help from our experience in Afghanistan.

"So we will be putting in more training people to help at the training centres across the country, not just in the Kurdish areas."

Mr Fallon, who visit ed British army trainers teaching Peshmerga fighters how to use heavy machine guns given by the UK, insisted the Government remains clear that no combat troops will be deployed to Iraq.

Under the expansion of the training mission, UK troops will teach Kurds i nfantry skills such as sharp-shooting and first aid, and more equipment will be provided. The UK will also send advisory personnel to Iraqi headquarters.

Pressure has been growing to provide more assistance to new Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi as his country's forces struggle to reclaim territory in the north and west.

Mr Fallon held talks in Baghdad with the premier as well as Iraqi security advisers before flying north to Erbil to met the President of the Kurdistan regional government Masoud Barzani and prime minister Nechirvan Barzani.

He added: "The need is now. It's a very immediate challenge from Isil. As they start to push Isil back out of the villages and towns that Isil have gone into they are going to need this kind of assistance with roadside bombs, particularly to counter the terror tactics that Isil have been using.

"So, we are looking very urgently now how we can get more training help to them in the next few weeks."

Asked about concerns of mission creep, he replied: "This is a very limited mission. The Prime Minister's made it very, very clear we are not going to recommit combat troops to Iraq. We've been there, we've done that.

"What we are going to do is to help the new government of Iraq and its own army take the fight to Isil through the aircraft we have deployed in the sky, through intelligence gathering, and through specialist training."

British troops were part of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that overthrew Saddam Hussein, and later took responsibility for Basra and the south of the country.

The last combat troops with Operation Telic, as it was called, left in April 2009, with a small number staying on to train Iraqi forces until 2011.

RAF Tornado fighter-bombers have been taking part in US-led bombing raids on IS.

But Prime Minister David Cameron has dismissed the prospect of sending in ground troops to fight the Islamist group, which controls swathes of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The head of Joint Forces Command told MPs that the UK's commitment in Iraq would "endure for some time" but the aim was not to defeat IS by military force alone.

General Sir Richard Barrons said: "We are very clear that we are making a contribution to a coalition military operation in the full expectation that the military line of effort is not decisive.

"We are providing niche support, it's actually really quite small scale, based on the Government's direction, and we expect that contribution to be small but to endure for some time."

Appearing alongside General Barrons at the Defence Select Committee, the head of the Army General Sir Nicholas Carter said the military campaign was part of a "much broader political strategy".

"The key to this is about removing the causes that gave rise to the phenomenon in the first place, so the military element of this is essentially going to be about containment and it's going to be about reassuring those who are playing in the coalition, in regional terms, to try and buy the time for the political strategy to cut in and make a difference," Gen Carter said.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas told the committee: "I think you have to have a centrepiece of strategic, political authority around which you can coalesce a regional solution or a reaction to the horrors on the ground.

"If you don't have the Iraqi government reinforced and authoritative, it becomes an intervention without focus politically, it becomes an over-militarised solution. So I do think we need to pursue the politics first and as the generals have said, that's precisely where we are."

Gen Carter said the UK would help train the Iraqi security forces "do a better job of commanding, controlling and planning" at headquarters level, along with support in specialist areas.

"What it is not going to be, I sense, is actually down on the ground training infantry," he said.

He acknowledged "that may be different up where the Kurds are operating", where the MoD has announced plans for sniper training and first aid.

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