LONDON – The British government Monday rejected claims it was planning to put some of its troops under U.S. command as a political show of support for President Bush ahead of the presidential election.
According to widespread media reports, Britain is considering redeploying a reserve battalion of some 650 soldiers to Baghdad to back up Americans planning a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah (search).
Some opposition lawmakers have accused the government of pandering to Washington rather than basing decisions on military needs.
Britain's Ministry of Defense has confirmed that U.S. commanders have asked for British troops to be repositioned, but it stressed that no decision has yet been made. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon (search) was scheduled to make a statement to the House of Commons on the subject later Monday.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) dismissed the claims as "complete nonsense from the beginning, through the middle, to the end."
Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram insisted British troops will not be used as "political playthings."
"Any decision on the deployment of British troops in Iraq or anywhere else will be based on operational criteria," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
But opposition Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy (search) said he could not see why the U.S. military, which has 130,000 troops in Iraq, might need more support from 650 British soldiers.
"It is hard to see why that constitutes a crucial contribution in the American point of view," he told BBC radio, and he said Britain should be considering withdrawing from Iraq. "This, far from being an exit strategy, runs the risk of being an ensnarement strategy that drags Britain further into the mire."
Several newspapers have reported that Britain is considering sending its reserve force — the First Battalion Black Watch (search) — from the southern port city of Basra to Baghdad to free up American troops to participate in an expected all-out offensive on Fallujah, a city 40 miles west of the capital that is considered the toughest stronghold of insurgents.
A senior military official told The Associated Press that Britain had no plans to do so.
"No plans have been made for the First Battalion Black Watch to go to Baghdad or Fallujah," said Maj. Charlie Mayo, a British military spokesman in Basra.
However, a military source said contingency plans were in place to send British troops to the U.S.-controlled sector and that discussions about coalition troop deployments were ongoing with Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Sending British soldiers further north into the U.S.-controlled sector, where there are more attacks by insurgents, carries a risk of higher casualties and would be politically sensitive for Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Are we seriously expected to believe that with 130,000 soldiers in Iraq that the Americans, for military reasons, need 650 Black Watch to protect their backs in Iraq while they storm Fallujah?" Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond told the BBC. "I don't want to see a single Black Watch soldier sacrificed and jeopardized for a political gesture from Tony Blair to George W. Bush."
Cabinet minister Alan Milburn denied that "some sort of tawdry political deal" was being done.
"All of these decisions are taken on an operational basis. They are done in full consultation with the people on the ground," he said.
U.S. forces began bombing targets in Fallujah on Thursday after peace talks between Iraqi officials and city leaders broke down. The Iraqi government has demanded city officials hand over terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed responsible for suicide bombings and beheading foreign hostages, including Americans.
U.S. officials indicated the bombing was not a prelude to a major offensive into the city that they have said they might launch sometime this fall. Negotiations aimed at restoring government control in Fallujah without requiring a ground assault have faltered.