LONDON – Britain has put its forces in the Middle East on standby to assist “if the need arises,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has told lawmakers.
The readiness levels of British forces in the region, including helicopters and warships, has been raised as “urgent measures” are taken to protect British nationals and interests in the wake of the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Qassim Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike last week, Wallace said Jan 7.
“To ensure the safety and security of our personnel we have also re-located non-essential personnel from Baghdad to Taji. Coalition forces in Iraq, including British forces, have suspended all training activities. And, as part of prudent planning, a small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness, and contingency planning assistance,” Wallace told Parliament.
The British have around 400 troops in Iraq, mainly Irish Guards, spread between Baghdad, Erbil and Taji – the latter predominantly an Australian base some 17 miles north of the Iraqi capital.
A spokesman for the MoD said the planning team being sent to Iraq consisted of fewer than 20 people and would provide additional situational awareness and contingency planning assistance.
The British have a handful of Chinook and Wildcat helicopters operating in the region. The Royal Air Force assets include six Typhoon fighters alongside ISTAR and inflight-refueling aircraft.
The Wildcats are based on the small Royal Navy force which has been operating in the Gulf region since the British tanker Stena Impero was hijacked in the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranians in July in retaliation for the earlier impounding an Iranian ship bound for Syria with a cargo of crude oil.
The Stena Impero and the Iranian tanker have both since been released.
The British have a destroyer, a frigate, and four mine-countermeasures and logistic ships operating in the Arabian Gulf region. The fleet is supported from a British naval base in Bahrain.
Britain’s Department for Transport is currently assessing the threat to British commercial ships in the region on a daily basis. Wallace said the government will issue new guidance to British merchantmen in the area “imminently.”