The Royal Air Force will deploy Tornado GR4 fighter jets in support of the growing military air campaign over northern Iraq, British officials said Tuesday. The officials stressed the aircraft would be part of humanitarian operations there, but the deployment nonetheless sparked speculation that Britain might soon join the United States in launching airstrikes.
A “small number of aircraft” fitted with high-tech Litening III reconnaissance pods flew out of Norfolk in eastern England Tuesday afternoon, British officials said. They will be deployed to Cyprus, an island nation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea where they will be “available to fly over the crisis area at short notice to provide vital intelligence to assist the delivery” of British humanitarian aid, British defense officials said.
“Thousands of innocent people suffering in northern Iraq urgently need our help,” said British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. “Tornado aircraft will be able to play a specialist surveillance role to give us a more complete picture of the situation in the crisis area.”
Officials did not say whether Britain might consider joining the United States in conducting airstrikes on militant targets. Fighters with the radical Islamic State have seized territory across northern and western Iraq, causing civilians to flee their homes. In northern Iraq, tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, have taken refuge on a mountain near Sinjar, where they are without food or water.
Three British air crews flying Royal Air Force C-130 cargo planes have already conducted air drops, Fallon said. They delivered 9,000 five-liter water bottles and 816 solar lanterns, British officials said.
The announcement is the latest indication that the U.S.-led effort to help provide assistance to Iraqis in the northern part of the country is expanding and taking on a more international flavor. It began with U.S. air drops Thursday in Sinjar. U.S. aviators began carrying out airstrikes the following day to prevent militants from getting too close to the city of Irbil, where the United States maintains a consulate and has military advisers.
On Thursday, British officials said they had also agreed to transport military supplies to Kurdish forces battling members of the Islamic State. The supplies, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said, were from “other contributing states.”
U.S. military officials said Monday that that U.S. aircraft have now made five air drops of food and water on Mount Sinjar. They have been conducted from multiple unidentified air bases in the Middle East. The latest air drop was performed by air crews in one C-17, which dropped 40 pallets of water, and three C-130 aircraft, which dropped 36 bundles with a combined 11,088 prepackaged meals and 1,331 gallons of water, U.S. officials said.
As of Monday, U.S. aircraft have delivered more than 85,000 meals and more than 20,000 gallons of drinking water.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to accurately characterize the Cyprus government.