British military commanders are resisting pressure from Downing Street to deploy large-scale reinforcements to join American forces in Baghdad and other volatile parts of Iraq.
Baghdad exploded in violence again yesterday, providing a foretaste of the dangers that await British forces should they be deployed there.
A powerful explosion in a chemical warehouse in Baghdad yesterday morning killed two US soldiers and wounded five as they smashed their way into the building, suspected of being a bomb factory. The blast wrecked four US Humvees parked outside the brick house, which a dozen American soldiers were searching when it blew up.
The Independent revealed last week that Britain’s military planners have drawn up contingency plans to send up to 1,700 extra troops in response to the increasing violence.
Washington wants Britain to provide a new headquarters to replace the 1,300 Spanish troops around Najaf who are due to begin their withdrawal next week. Senior defence sources say the Americans have also renewed pressure for a British presence in the Iraqi capital, and No 10 believes it is becoming increasingly necessary if the UK is to have a more influential role in the military forces.
According to defence officials, Downing Street is passing on the pressure it is under from Washington.
A senior British officer, Major-General John McColl, is due to take over as deputy commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Iraq after political power is handed over to Iraqis on 1 July. The Americans are said to be stressing that Britain should be prepared to back up such a high-level post with a deployment of soldiers.
The presence of British soldiers in the Iraqi capital would enable the US to claim it was a truly international operation in the violent Sunni triangle.
According to defence sources, the Pentagon has asked for the 16th Air Assault Brigade. This is the second such request since the official end of the war.
The Government has said that sending additional units to Iraq would lead to overstretch. But British military commanders have become increasingly critical of the aggressive stance of the American forces at flashpoints like Fallujah.
Sending troops to Baghdad, say defence chiefs, would put them under direct American command, rather than a nominal one enjoyed in the British-controlled zone in the south.
Any British troops sent to Najaf, where the militant Shia leader Muqtada Sadr and his armed supporters have taken refuge, will be expected take part in a "hearts and minds campaign". But, a British defence source said yesterday, "Thanks to the way the Americans have behaved, it’s too late. Any hand of friendship extended now is likely to be attached to a suicide bomber."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs, said yesterday: "There are obvious doctrinal difference between the Americans and the British on peace-keeping, and one can understand the unease of the British military."