UK to supply weapons to Kurds
Britain is to supply £1.6 million of machine guns and ammunition to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq as part of a burgeoning international effort to drive back the jihadists .
The announcement of the first shipment of UK arms to the peshmerga fighters came as US President Barack Obama prepared to set out his strategy for "degrading and ultimately destroying" IS in a prime time televised address tomorrow.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the move was intended to increase the firepower of the Kurdish forces who have found themselves outgunned by the well-armed IS - also referred to as Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
"The Kurdish forces remain significantly less well equipped than Isil and we are responding to help them defend themselves, protect citizens and push back Isil advances," he said in a Commons written statement.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the Government would be considering what else it could be contributing to the US plan with other "like-minded" nations who held discussions on the situation in the region at last week's Nato summit in Wales.
Giving evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he reiterated that ministers had not ruled out joining US air strikes against IS - although he acknowledged that the Americans had all the firepower they needed.
"I think it's probably realistic to say, given the scale of United States assets available, the primary driver would be the importance of building a political coalition of nations rather than a shortage of military hardware on the part of the United States," he said.
He affirmed a commitment given by Prime Minister David Cameron that MPs would be given a vote before any UK forces were committed to operations against IS.
"I think that the United States is well aware that this is a very sensitive subject in this country and that we will want to look at what kind of package of action is proposed in order to deal with the challenge of Isil," he said.
"We will want to think very carefully about how we can contribute most effectively to that."
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel are in the Gulf trying to build support among regional allies for what Mr Hammond said would be a "very broad-based and comprehensive response" to the IS threat.
The Foreign Secretary stressed that the success of the strategy depended upon the ability of the new government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reach out to the Sunni Muslim minority alienated by the sectarian policies of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.
"This can only work if there is a credible Iraqi government, credible Iraqi security forces on the ground. If there isn't, much as we might like to intervene, there isn't a sensible intervention that is likely to be effective that we could pursue," he said.
While Mr Hammond welcomed the programme set out by al-Abadi, he said that so far they had not seen the "buy-in" they had hoped for from the Sunni tribes in western Iraq who had aligned themselves with IS and whose support is seen as crucial to defeating the militants.
"To switchback they are going to need to see a sustained outreach that reflects their long-standing and justified grievances about the way their interests have been ignored by the previous regime," he said.
He added: "All the right noises are being made by all the relevant people. On the other side of the equation it is fair to observe that a lot of the names in the government are names that have been around the Iraqi political scene for a long time.
"There is not a lot of fresh blood. We will have to wait and see the level of demonstrated commitment to the programme that has been set out."
Mr Hammond also reacted cautiously to the prospect of extending military action against IS to Syria where it is thought to be holding the British aid worker David Haines and other western hostages.
"The legal, military, practical, technical cultural differences between Iraq and Syria a very significant. We are dealing with very different situations in the two," he said.
While he ruled out direct co-operation with President Bashar al Assad against IS, he acknowledged that Britain was rebuilding diplomatic relations with Iran - one of the Syrian dictator's few remaining allies.
"We are in the process of re-establishing an embassy in Tehran. We hope that over the coming months we will find that we are increasingly able to engage in a wide range of discussions with the Iranians as countries that have diplomatic relations do," he said.