LONDON — In a step fraught with risks for Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain agreed Thursday to send 850 of its soldiers from relatively peaceful southern Iraq to a volatile area near Baghdad, freeing U.S. troops to step up attacks on insurgent strongholds west of the capital.
The move is part of a coalition effort to bring order to Iraq before elections in January. But British lawmakers, many of whom opposed the war, are angry, fearing a major increase in British casualties. And some are grumbling that Britain is "bailing out" President Bush in his bid for re-election.
The Bush administration welcomed the redeployment, with White House spokesman Scott McClellan saying, "We appreciate the contribution," and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praising Britain's key role in the U.S.-led coalition.
"It just demonstrates, once again, the kind of role that Britain is prepared to play in a matter that affects their security and our security, the security of all of us, and that is stabilizing Iraq and helping the people of Iraq take control of their destiny and reconstruct their country," Boucher said.
Meeting a request from U.S. commanders, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said an armored battle group from the First Battalion Black Watch would move from its base around the southern port city of Basra into a U.S.-controlled sector close to the capital. Sunni insurgents have been carrying out daily attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqis in the area.
The battalion, complete with support units of medics, signalers and engineers, would stay for a limited period of time, "weeks rather than months," Hoon said. Britain's chief of defense staff, Gen. Sir Michael Walker, later said the deployment would last a maximum of 30 days.
"The government remains totally committed in its support of the interim Iraqi government and the need to hold free elections in January. We also remain committed to protecting innocent Iraqis, to dealing with terrorists, kidnappers and criminals," Hoon told the House of Commons as lawmakers groaned with disapproval.
He declined to give further details of the "location, duration or specifics of the mission," citing security reasons, and did not say when the move will take place.
The American military wants the British to assume security responsibility in areas close to Baghdad, so U.S. Marines and soldiers can be shifted to insurgency strongholds west of the capital, including Fallujah.
U.S. and Iraqi officials want to restore government control to Fallujah, Ramadi and other Sunni Muslim cities in that area and have warned they will use force if negotiations with community leaders there fail.
The redeployment is politically sensitive for Blair, whose popularity has plummeted because of his support for the Iraq war.
Britain's 8,500 troops are based around Basra, and sending British soldiers into the more dangerous U.S.-controlled sector carries a risk of higher casualties. Sixty-eight British soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began last year, the Defense Ministry said.
With British national elections widely expected next year, Blair has fought to shift the focus back to domestic policies. But the redeployment, and the increased dangers British troops will face, ensure Iraq will remain in the spotlight, making many lawmakers uneasy. Fifty-eight lawmakers from Blair's 407-strong Labour Party have signed a motion demanding a Commons vote on whether the movement should go ahead.
Blair and his officials insist the move is a purely military matter.
"The decision is both militarily sensible and contributes to our overall strategic aim of ensuring elections take place in January 2005," Walker said Thursday.
The troops will remain under day-to-day operational command of Maj. Gen. Bill Rollo, the British commander in Basra. But they will be under the tactical control of the U.S. 24th Marine Expeditionary Force so they can coordinate with American soldiers on the ground.
Some of Blair's lawmakers are suspicious the redeployment is a political gesture, allowing Bush to tell voters in the closing days of the presidential race that U.S. forces are not alone in the most volatile areas of Iraq.
Labour left-winger Dennis Skinner, a vocal opponent of the war, spoke out against the redeployment and said he was "mirroring the views of millions of people in Britain."
"Don't you think it is slightly ironic that the American president and his vice president, who both refused to face the muck and bullets in Vietnam, are now calling upon British forces to bail them out?" he asked Hoon during a Commons debate Thursday.
Several lawmakers expressed concern that the Black Watch was filling in for U.S. troops expected to launch an all-out offensive on Fallujah — an attack they said would undoubtedly cause civilian casualties.
"Time and again, most regrettably, so-called precision American airstrikes have resulted in significant Iraqi civilian casualties, including women and children," Conservative lawmaker Sir John Stanley said.
"Assuming this pattern continues, what assessment have you made of the risk, not only to the Black Watch but British forces generally, being unjustifiably associated in the Iraqi public mind with having caused civilian casualties?"
Labour lawmaker John Denham warned of a voter backlash against Blair.
"Would you accept that there is a political cost to this decision? It will be borne in part by our political party, perhaps more importantly in the standing of this country abroad if the civilian deaths we fear turn out to be on the scale that people are worried about," Denham said.