- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

LONDON, Jan. 7 (UPI) — A rather confused and schizophrenic Britain was Tuesday beginning to ponder the government's announcement that it is mobilizing the first 1,500 military reservists for action against Iraq. It is also dispatching an amphibious task force of some 2,500 Royal Marines to the Gulf.

But the reservists are mostly doctors, other medical teams and other support personnel: There was no indication that Britain was hastening to sending into what many consider the imminent fray the armored forces that really matter.

Up to 10,000 troops in Britain's Germany-based 1st Armored Division are preparing their tanks for desert warfare. Army chiefs are presuming that the government wants them to make a significant military and therefore political contribution to any U.S.-led ground strike against Saddam Hussein.

But army chiefs chafe that if they do not get their deployment orders now they will not have time to get to Kuwait before the U.S. Army and Marines launch attacks in mid-February, considered the best time for the operation.

Instead, according to army sources, some armored units are being told to take their anthrax shots this week — but not to expect to see any action in Iraq until most of the anti-Saddam fighting is over, after which they are likely to serve as occupational forces.

The failure of Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon to mention the armored "Desert Rats" in his House of Commons statement Tuesday prompted opposition Conservative Party defense spokesman Bernard Jenkin to ask him the question increasingly being heard in Parliament and elsewhere: Is the Cabinet deeply divided on whether to go to war with Iraq at all?

The public answer from Prime Minister Tony Blair and other ministers is, absolutely not, even if it is known that such left-wingers as International Development Secretary Clare Short are opposed to war in principle.

While insisting that war was not inevitable, Blair Tuesday told a conference of 120 British ambassadors recalled from around the world to discuss foreign policy by saying that if the world does not take a stand against WMD "we will rue the consequences of our weakness".

"We are the ally of the United States not because they are powerful, but because we share their values. I am not surprised by anti-Americanism; but it is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults and all nations have them, the U.S. are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud."

The British public instinctively believes that, too. But in spite of anti-terrorist police co-incidentally arresting six people, reported to be North Africans, for possessing small amounts of the deadly toxin ricin in London Sunday, there is little public sense that Iraq is a serious threat to Britain.

Indeed, a large and increasingly influential majority does not believe a pre-emptive strike is the right action at this time, or that British troops should be put at risk for what many see as essential a U.S. foreign policy, not a British one.

Almost all church leaders are opposed, as are prominent academics and media commentators, and the opposition liberal democrats and conservatives.

The latter includes Member of Parliament Boris Johnson, who expressed a predominant British public theme in a commentary for the Daily Telegraph last week by asking why go to war to prove a negative — that Saddam must be guilty because he failed to prove he was innocent.

There is anxiety over talk of a "drift to war" and that the greater challenge appears to United States, British and United Nations credibility if the allies fail to follow their military threat with military action, rather than the threat from Iraq itself.

Military personnel are undecided, too. "I, and the rest of the British public clearly don't think the case (for war) has yet been made," the former commander of Britain's 7th Armored Brigade 'Desert Rats' during the 1991 Gulf War told BBC Radio Tuesday.

Said Maj. Gen. Sir Patrick Cordingley: "One can only assume that the Government knows something that they can't tell us about, and I hope that's so, if we do go into the attack. But clearly at the moment I don't think there is a case."

Another former British Gulf War commander, Lt. Col. Andrew Larpent, sent a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Monday accusing the Ministry of Defense of "serious negligence" in failing to produce a workable "Identification Friend or Foe" system to prevent 'friendly fire' accidents 12 years after the Gulf War.

Nine of his Fusilier soldiers were killed and 12 seriously wounded when a U.S. A-10 Tankbuster aircraft mistook them for Iraqis. It was the worst British incident of the war.

"Our chiefs of staff and politicians should consider very carefully the risk that they could be imposing on our troops and how they will answer to the nation if yet more British soldiers become casualties in similar circumstances," he wrote. "It is essential that urgent attention is given to providing an effective IFF system for frontline vehicles as a precondition to the commitment of British forces to close combat operations involving the US Air Force."

The letter made front-page news and appears to have further demoralized British troops. Some 19,000 are still on standby in case the nation's fire fighters go on strike again, and many of the rest are overextended in deployments and exercises around the world.

For these and other reasons military chiefs have made it clear to Blair that there must be significant limits to any British deployment to support the United States against Iraq — either in length of time or in their mission. A Downing Street spokesman said the message has been received.

Britain's military ground role in any Iraq action therefore looks more like the one Pentagon chiefs were thinking of months ago; primarily a small but very capable force of light infantry, in the form of Special Forces, Royal Marines and airborne forces of 16 Air Assault Brigade, including Paras: an "Afghanistan-plus" force as one senior army officer describes it.

With Hoon Tuesday announcing the deployment of the helicopter carrier Ocean and helicopter-capable Argus (which can double as a hospital ship), together with men from 40 Commando, 42 Commando and the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade, Britain will have a substantial light amphibious assault force for U.S. General Tommy Franks to use. Marines can also be based on the carrier Ark Royal and other ships, which are to start deploying for a six-month Far East tour this Saturday.

The two carriers will exercise in the eastern Mediterranean until they are called forward, which could be to join with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Gulf or to deploy to Turkey and then to northern Iraq, where the British Marines have had a 12-year relationship supporting the Kurdish population.

Since Turkey is also tentatively marked as a base for the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, however, that could be a location for the similarly-equipped British 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Hoon is due to depart for Turkey to discuss such basing issues on Wednesday.

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