- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair will call this week for a British-led NATO rapid-reaction force to take control of all of southern Iraq, sources said.

In a move designed to bring greater cohesion to the military coalition, the prime minister will ask Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary-general, for permission to deploy to Iraq the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps(ARRC) headquarters, the sources said.

The move would greatly enhance Mr. Blair’s ability to influence coalition policy because, for the first time since the start of the war, Britain would have a strategic-level headquarters in Iraq.

British defense chiefs believe the deployment would enhance stability in the country after the transfer of power to the Iraqis on June 30 and would speed the eventual withdrawal of British forces.

It would also mean that Iraq would in effect be divided into two military zones: one in the north commanded by the U.S. military, the other in the south commanded by the British.

British military commanders have been reported to feel that “heavy-handed” American tactics in places like Fallujah and Najaf have been counterproductive and have made the country more dangerous for all coalition forces.

The newspaper the Scotsman yesterday cited a confidential memo prepared by aides to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and distributed to senior Cabinet ministers last week that stressed the need to press the Americans to avoid aggressive responses “which would jeopardize our objectives.”

The proposal to send the ARRC to Iraq under British command remains subject to approval by Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, the sources said. It was not clear whether U.S. officials had been consulted on the plan or approved of it, though Washington has been eager to see British forces play a larger role in the south.

London’s views on the use of the AARC carry much weight because 60 percent of its personnel are British, including its commander, Lt. Gen. Richard Dannatt. The remainder come from a variety of countries, including Germany, the United States, Turkey, Greece and Spain.

The deployment would bring the cities of Najaf and Kut, scenes of heavy fighting, under British control for the first time since the war began. Najaf, which contains Iraq’s most important Shi’ite shrine, is where Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric, has established a 3,000-strong militia force opposed to the occupation of Iraq.

The deployment would be NATO’s first significant military involvement in Iraq, and the ARRC’s first operation since the Kosovo intervention in 1999. The force is estimated to be made up of 3,000 troops.

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