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British troops will stay in Iraq for five years after Saddam is ousted

14 July 2002

British troops will have to be stationed in Iraq for up to five years as part of an "occupation force" once Saddam Hussein has been removed from power, ministers have been told.

The warning was issued to the Cabinet last week as speculation mounted that an invasion of Iraq was increasingly likely, probably early next year. The Telegraph has been told by senior defence officials that it will be necessary for a significant force to remain in Iraq to prevent the post-Saddam state from fragmenting into anarchy.

The disclosure comes as intelligence reports indicate that al-Qa'eda terrorist cells are regrouping in the Middle East and North Africa. Foreign Office officials believe that al-Qa'eda units are becoming increasingly active in Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen, where they are thought to have been plotting their next wave of attacks.

A number of al-Qa'eda suspects have been arrested in Morocco and the bombing of hotels in Tunisia has also been blamed on Osama bin Laden's organisation. It is understood that British and American special forces are using locally-recruited agents in an attempt to penetrate the groups.

"The governments of Tunisia and Morocco are co-operating," said the official. "It is Yemen we are really worried about". The renewed al-Qa'eda activities are a concern to America and Britain as planning for an offensive against Iraq is stepped up. Ministry of Defence officials believe that up to 30,000 British troops will be required to fight alongside America if the Prime Minister wants to be a "power player" in the action.

Up to half of those troops would have to remain in the region for several years to help support the post-Saddam government, in much the way as an international stabilisation force now operates in Afghanistan.

There is concern in the Foreign Office and at Cabinet level that Saddam's removal could precipitate a civil war if the Kurds attempt to annex homelands in northern Iraq. Worries also exist that the Marsh Arabs in the south of the country, who have been victimised by Saddam's regime for years, may also demand an autonomous region.

The cost of keeping up to 15,000 British troops in Iraq for five years would be prohibitive, but it is hoped that friendly nations who will not commit troops to the ground war, such as Japan, will help foot the bill as they did 11 years ago in Operation Desert Storm. British officials have been at pains to emphasise to American diplomats the importance of nation-building, an area in which President Bush is known to have little interest.

A senior MoD official said yesterday: "The reason why George Bush Snr didn't go all the way to Baghdad in 1991 was because he knew he would be stuck there for five years. You can't remove Saddam, destroy his army and then pull out - that would be a disaster. The importance of nation-building has been impressed on the Americans."

Indications that the British armed forces want to be ready for every eventuality have been revealed by significant troop withdrawals from Bosnia, Macedonia, Sierra Leone and most recently from Afghanistan. It is being viewed as highly significant within the Army that Maj Gen John McColl has returned to Britain from commanding the international stabilisation force in Afghanistan.

Gen McColl is the commander of 3(UK) Division, one of the two operational deployable divisions in the British Army. It is highly probable that any force sent to Iraq would include elements of his division.

It is also understood that another reason why American military chiefs would prefer a war in 2003 rather than later this year is that stocks of their most sophisticated weapons such as cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs were seriously depleted by the war in Afghanistan. Although the production of both weapons has been in full swing for several months, stocks have yet to reach pre-Afghanistan levels.

Cruise missiles are vital to any attack plan because they allow the US to destroy Iraq's air defence capability without putting pilots at risk.

Sean Rayment and Christina Lamb
Published by The Telegraph © Telegraph Group Limited 2002

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