UK Politics

UK to deploy armed drones against Islamic State in Iraq

Reaper unmanned aircraft Image copyright PA
Image caption It will be the first time Reapers have been used outside Afghanistan

UK Reaper drones operating in Afghanistan will be redeployed to be used against Islamic State militants in Iraq, the government has confirmed.

The armed unmanned aircraft will be increasingly based in the Middle East as they are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

The defence secretary confirmed they would be used to provide "surveillance support" to Iraqi authorities and the US-led coalition.

MPs backed air strikes against Islamic State extremists in Iraq last month.

The jihadist group, also known as IS, Isis and Isil, has been driven out of the Syrian town of Kobane, which is near the border with Turkey, a Kurdish commander has told the BBC. US-led air strikes had helped push it back, it was added.

Battlefield 'stabilised'

But, under the terms of the vote in the UK Parliament, the country's armed forces can only help with air operations over Iraq.

In a written statement to MPs, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: "As the UK's only armed remotely piloted aircraft, Reaper will add to the strike capability we are already providing with our Tornado GR4 aircraft."

He said the use of Reapers, which have hi-tech sensors and laser-guided weapons, would begin in Iraq "shortly" - the first time they have been used outside Afghanistan.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also confirmed their use to MPs in a statement and said the UK was making a valuable contribution to direct attacks and sophisticated surveillance in Iraq.

He said the international coalition had helped contribute to a "stabilisation" of the battlefield in northern Iraq.

But shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander accused him of being "complacent" as Islamic State had conquered much of the western Anbar province and had come close to overrunning the Syrian town of Kobane.

He added: "Indeed, it is reported Isil also drew to within 15 miles of Baghdad's international airport only last weekend."

'Duty to protect'

Mr Hammond replied: "There will be tactical ebb and flow but the coalition air campaign has stabilised the strategic picture and the assessment of our experts is Baghdad is not at immediate danger."

He added that the government was "under no illusion as to the severity of this challenge to regional stability and to our homeland security", while IS would "not be overcome until Iraq and Syria have inclusive governments capable of marginalising its appeal and of mounting a sustained and effective response on the ground to the military and ideological threat it poses".

Mr Hammond said approximately 20% to 30% of Iraq's populated territory could be under IS control.

"Liberating this territory from Isil is a medium-term challenge to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. The horrific effects of Isil on governance and the social fabric will be felt for even longer."

In Syria, he said Britain would continue to provide "strong support to the moderate opposition, including technical assistance and non-lethal equipment".

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Britain had a duty to protect residents of Kobane from extremists.

He said: "I personally find it increasingly difficult to justify the distinction in our policy between Iraq and Syria.

"If the town of Kobane is to fall, then the outcome for its inhabitants based on previous experience could be apocalyptic.

"In those circumstances, is there not now a case for the United Kingdom to join in the air operations in Syria under the authority of the right of humanitarian intervention? But perhaps more pertinently, under the authority of the duty to protect."

The foreign secretary replied that most civilians have now left Kobane.

But Tory backbencher John Baron said: "May I urge caution against those who advocate increased military intervention, whether it's in Iraq or Syria.

"Our track record in understanding the nuances of the region has been poor over the last decade, whether one looks at Iraq in 2003, the disastrous morphing of the mission in Afghanistan in 2006, Libya, or indeed our different positions in the Syrian civil war only recently."

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