-- The British government said Thursday that it was sending 370 more soldiers and extra firepower to the southern zone it controls in Iraq, a stopgap that may be followed by a larger dispatch to counter an anticipated upsurge in violence.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the deployment was not a strategic change in Britain's role in the U.S.-led occupation but would give its forces extra protection against attacks. He said talks were continuing with military partners over the need for further deployments.
Sending more forces could prove politically risky for Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose popularity has fallen because of the Iraq war. A public opinion poll this week showed that two-thirds of Britons oppose sending more soldiers to Iraq, and some antiwar members of Blair's ruling Labor Party criticized Thursday's announcement.
"The war was illegal, the occupation is illegal, and now we are compounding this by pouring in more troops," said Jeremy Corbyn, a member of the Labor Party in Parliament.
Spain's pullout from the volatile south-central region around Najaf put pressure on Blair to send in reinforcements. The new deployment would bring Britain's contingent in Iraq and other parts of the Persian Gulf to 8,900.
Hoon said that the reinforcement, though modest in number, would boost Britain's firepower by replacing light infantry with heavier battalions to deal with a threat from what he termed "violent groups." Any further deployments would be designed to support the interim Iraqi government due to take office on June 30, Hoon said. "There is likely to be an upsurge of violence" in advance of the handover, he added.
The extra deployment will not put British troops into hot spots such as Najaf, where U.S. troops and Shiite militia have engaged in weeks of combat.
Defense analysts said the size of any further British deployment may depend on whether other countries agree to send soldiers. "I think this is an advance party for a much bigger contingent," said Charles Heyman, senior defense analyst at Jane's Consultancy.
Britain's force in the Persian Gulf last year numbered 45,000 troops, its largest deployment since the Korean War 50 years ago. Since then, with Britain pitted against European partners over its tight alliance with Washington, it has lowered its profile to a force about a 20th the size of the United States'.