LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair's (search) government on Monday rejected claims from opposition lawmakers that a redeployment of British troops in Iraq would be a political show of support for the Bush administration before U.S. presidential elections.
Amid media reports that Britain is considering sending a reserve battalion of some 650 soldiers to Baghdad, some lawmakers believe a redeployment in such a dangerous area would be a political gesture.
Britain's Ministry of Defense has confirmed that U.S. commanders have asked for British troops to be repositioned, but stress 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.
Blair's close friend and Cabinet colleague Lord Falconer (search) said Monday a decision would be "entirely not political."
"It is entirely operational," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
But opposition Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said he could not see why the U.S. military, which has some 130,000 troops in Iraq, might need further 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 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," he added.
Several newspapers have reported that Britain is considering sending its reserve force — the First Battalion Black Watch — from the southern port city of Basra to Baghdad to fill in for U.S. troops expected to launch a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah.
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.
A military source said, however, that 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 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 at the weekend.
"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.