British troops have been back on the ground in Iraq for the first time since 2009 after the Government declared humanitarian action was no longer enough.
RAF aircraft have continued flying reconnaissance missions to help the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants, but troops from the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire regiment were also sent into Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region for 24 hours to prepare the ground for a possible rescue operation by Chinook helicopters.
They have now left but British special forces were still said to be in northern Iraq.
The move came after Prime Minister David Cameron said British “military prowess” would have to play a part in pushing back the threat from IS, the group previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He claimed IS posed a “clear danger” to the UK. Thousands of Christians and Yazidis have fled their homes to escape IS fighters.
On a visit to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, where the UK operation is based, Defence Minister Michael Fallon told pilots and other service members that the Iraq mission was likely to last “weeks and months”.
He said: “We want to help the new government of Iraq and Kurdish forces. We want to help them stop the advance of IS and stop them from being terrorised.
“This is not simply a humanitarian mission. We and other countries in Europe are determined to do what we can to help the government of Iraq combat this new and very extreme form of terrorism that IS is promoting.”
He said four Chinook helicopters remained on stand-by to carry out any airlift of refugees fleeing violence if necessary.
Mr Fallon said the UK had already transported ammunition and arms supplied by other countries to re-supply Kurdish forces, adding that Britain might also supply equipment such as body armour and night-vision goggles.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander called for “clarity” from the Government about the nature of the mission British forces were engaged in. But he added: “We have supported the steps that the British Government, along with other European allies, have taken.”