Britain has accepted a U.S. request to move some of its troops in Iraq closer to Baghdad to free up American forces for counter-insurgency operations ahead of Iraqi elections in January.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the decision in parliament, saying the government was acting on the advice of British military commanders.
"After careful evaluation, the chiefs of staff have advised me that U.K. forces are able to undertake the proposed operation, that there is a compelling military operational justification for doing so, and that it entails a militarily acceptable level of risk for U.K. forces," Mr. Hoon says. "Based on this military advice, the government has decided that we should accept the U.S. request for assistance."
Mr. Hoon provided few details, citing security reasons, but he said an 850-man armored battalion of the Black Watch regiment will undertake the assignment. Despite published reports, Mr. Hoon said there are no plans to send an additional 1,300 troops to Iraq.
The main opposition party, the Conservatives, said they support the mission. But Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, opposed the Iraq war and objects to the new troop deployment.
The defense spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Paul Keetch, repeated charges that the operation sends a signal of British support for President Bush in his re-election campaign.
"It is a political show of support for President Bush and for the United States in Iraq. Now I don't mind that, but I don't want to use British soldiers as pawns in a political game," Mr. Keetch says.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and other government officials flatly deny the move has anything to do with American politics.
The British military chief of staff, General Michael Walker, said the redeployment is necessary to safeguard Iraqi elections planned for January.
"It is important that the commander of the multi-national force Iraq, operating in concert with the Iraqi authorities, should have the freedom of action to respond to insurgent activities and to set the conditions for the elections in Iraq early next year," general Walker says.
General Walker says the deployment is planned to last for 30 days. Other military sources say the British troops will fill in for U.S. Marines who have been stationed west of Baghdad.
This will be the first time since the Iraq invasion last year that British troops will take up duties outside of the comparatively tranquil southeastern region around the city of Basra.