UK forces are “on standby” to assist in the Middle East following the escalation of tensions with Iran, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has announced.
Mr Wallace said the Government has taken “urgent measures” to protect British nationals and interests in the Gulf following the killing of General Qassim Soleimani in a US drone strike.
He added that it is for the US to explain if its decision was “illegal or not”, but said it was “clear there was a case for self-defence”.
The Commons statement revealed that UK forces in the region, including helicopters and ships, were ready to assist in the crisis if needed. Non-essential personnel had been relocated from Baghdad to Camp Taji, the military base 17 miles north of the Iraqi capital that is the current base for around 400 members of the Irish Guards.
“As part of prudent planning, a small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness and contingency planning assistance,” Mr Wallace told MPs.
The Defence Secretary urged Tehran not to retaliate for the strike on General Soleimani, saying Iran’s pattern of “aggressive behaviour” including targeting dissidents in Europe and hijacking civilian ships “was never going to go unchallenged”.
“Her Majesty’s Government urges Iran to return to the normal behaviour of the country it aspires to be and resist the urge to retaliate.
“None of us wants conflict, none of us wants our citizens, our friends and our allies to be put at risk.”
He said the Government was looking at the implications of the vote in the Iraqi parliament which called for the expulsion of foreign troops but urged the Baghdad government to allow them to remain in order to fight Islamic State militants.
“Our commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is unwavering and we urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our work countering this shared threat,” he said.
The Defence Secretary said Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, had provided “practical military support to the murderous regime in Syria, armed groups in Iraq and a total disregard for Human Rights”.
He said Gen Soleimani was a “serious destabilising”impact in the region and the “foremost architects of the malign activity” was the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council, led by the senior Iranian prior to his death last week.
“General Soleimani was no friend of the UK or our allies in the region”, Ben Wallace said.
“His clandestine operations saw him provide weapons to proxy forces in Iraq…killed and maimed UK soldiers [and] fomented instability in Basra” during the time when British forces were based in the southern Iraqi city, he said.
The Defence Secretary conformed a team of military personnel had deployed to the region to conduct planning to evacuate British nationals if required.
“As part of prudent planning, a small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness and contingency planning assistance,” he told MPs.
The group of around 20 military personnel, called an Operational Liaison and Reconnaissance Team, would have been deployed by the MoD’s Strategic Command, based in Northwood in north west London.
Addressing a packed House of Commons, the Defence Minister said coalition bases in Iraq containing UK and US personnel, including in the central area in Baghdad, had been attacked 14 times, on one occasion with 42 rockets, since Oct 2019
He said the US had consistently shown restraint throughout these attacks.
Jeremy Corbyn criticises Prime Minister’s absence
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of “hiding behind his Defence Secretary” by not making the Commons statement himself.
He asked Mr Wallace in the Commons: “Could he tell us where the Prime Minister is and what is he doing that’s so much more important than addressing Parliament on the assassination of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani – an extremely dangerous and aggressive act that risks starting yet another deadly war in the Middle East.”
Mr Corbyn said the PM had not answered a series of questions he asked in a letter, adding: “Instead today he’s hiding behind his Defence Secretary.”
Mr Corbyn said the “assassination” puts British troops and civilians, as well as people living in the region, “in danger” before asking if UK Government lawyers regarded the United States’ actions as “legal under international law”.
Responding, Mr Wallace defended the Prime Minister’s decision not to give a statement to MPs on the situation in the Middle East.
He said: “This Prime Minister actually believes in a Cabinet Government and letting the members of the cabinet who are responsible for the policy to come to the House to be able to answer the questions around the policy matter.”
The Defence Secretary accused Mr Corbyn of being “anti-America” in response to his questions about the killing of General Soleimani.
He said: “We’ve had the usual tripe of ‘this is about Trump, this is about America’ and all the anti-American anti-imperialist guff that we’ve had from him.”