A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.
British troops in Basra face clashes with Mehdi Army
Patrick Cockburn and Colin Brown, The Independent
British troops stationed near Basra are at risk of being drawn into fighting with Shia militiamen. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who is on a visit to Baghdad, has offered support to the Iraqi government’s offensive against the Mehdi Army.
Britain has 4,000 soldiers at Basra airport and has delayed pulling out 1,500 of them because of the fighting in late March between Iraqi government forces and the supporters of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “Over the past few weeks, the government… has taken decisive steps to extend security in key parts of the country,” said Mr Miliband. He later had private talks with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stressed his determination to crush the militias, though in truth he is only targeting the Mehdi Army and not the militias of parties that support him.
Mr Maliki’s military attack, which started on 25 March, failed to make any gains until it was backed by US troops, advisers, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in Basra and Baghdad. In Basra, British forces provided advisers and artillery support.
Two former soldiers who were jailed for their involvement in a gun smuggling ring have said the practice is common in the British army. Shane Pleasant and Ben Whitfield were in the Third Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, when they helped to smuggle weapons from Iraq into Europe.
They said if soldiers had the right contacts it was easy to smuggle weapons out of countries. The MoD said there was no evidence such guns were used in crimes in the UK.
The two soldiers told BBC Radio 5 Live that weapons could be obtained in Iraq or Afghanistan, either by buying or stealing from locals and foreign police.
Big advance in war on Afghanistan poppy
Tom Coghlan, The Telegraph
Opium production in Afghanistan is expected to fall significantly this year, with British and Afghan anti-drug efforts finally taking hold following record harvests.
Afghan officials said they expected that an increased number of the country’s 34 provinces would be declared “opium poppy free”.
More than 90 per cent of the heroin consumed in Britain originates in Afghanistan. Production in Helmand – its biggest heroin province and the front-line for British soldiers – is also expected to fall alongside successes against a major drug lord and smugglers.
Iraq pullout of 1,500 troops ‘stays on hold’
James Kirkup, The Telegraph
Plans to withdraw 1,500 British troops from Iraq remain on hold and force levels could remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, it has emerged.
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, told MPs that continuing instability and violence in southern Iraq still prevents the withdrawal of British forces from their base outside Basra.
Gordon Brown announced plans to cut the current British force at Basra Air Station from 4,000 to 2,500 last October.
But that withdrawal was put on hold earlier this month, and as he named the regiments now starting a six-month tour in Iraq, Mr Browne set no timetable for cutting troop numbers.
“While the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, and while military commanders continue to assess the changing environment in Basra, it remains prudent that we take time to fully consider further reductions,” he said.
It is ludicrous to dismiss us as neocon former extremists
Maajid Nawaz, The Guardian
Ziauddin Sardar’s attack on Britain’s first direct Muslim counter-extremism initiative, the Quilliam Foundation, was ill-informed in a number of ways (To lionise former extremists feeds anti-Muslim prejudice, April 24).
The Quilliam Foundation was not, as Sardar claims, established by two former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a group he rightly identifies as a cult. There are many people involved. Ed Husain and myself were the public face for the launch at the British Museum on Tuesday, but we had more than 20 former members of different Islamist groups attending in support, joining over 400 well-wishers from across British society.
New mission for British troops in Kosovo
Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian
Britain is to deploy hundreds of troops to Kosovo in a move likely to revive claims that the government is demanding too much from its armed forces.
Senior military and defence officials have agreed to a request from Nato to send a battlegroup based on 2 Rifles, a light infantry battalion of about 600 soldiers, to help maintain “public order” in the newly independent Balkan state, the Guardian has learned.
For the first six months of this year, Britain is responsible for providing Nato’s standby reserve force for the Balkans. British defence sources said yesterday the deployment of 2 Rifles would not have a significant impact on the army’s other commitments, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan – but that depended on how long the force will be asked to stay in Kosovo. Britain has told Nato it is willing to deploy the battalion, but for no longer than a month. A decision to deploy the troops is expected to be approved by the cabinet on Tuesday, say defence officials. They will be dispatched at the end of May.
Ministers offer concessions to rebels over 42-day limit
Ben Russell, The Independent
Ministers are preparing limited concessions to Labour rebels over plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge.
But Gordon Brown has warned Labour opponents that he will press ahead with the contentious anti-terrorism measures even if it means suffering a Commons defeat.
Tony McNulty, the Police minister, said he was prepared to talk about enhancing the role of Parliament in authorising any decision to hold terror suspects for more than the current 28-day limit. He told MPs scrutinising the Counter-Terrorism Bill that he would consider proposals to allow the Commons to vote on the powers within seven days of detention being approved. Under current plans MPs might have to wait 30 days before voting on such a move.
Face scans to trial in airports this summer
Gary Cleland, The Telegraph
Airline passengers will be screened using automated facial recognition technology rather than being checked by passport officers in an attempt to improve security in British airports.
Unmanned security clearance gates will be trialled in airports from this summer, where scans will match a person’s face to the record held on computer chip in their biometric passports.
Border security officials believe the scanning technology could be more effective at preventing identity fraud than humans.
Face scans for air passengers to begin in UK this summer – The Guardian
Restoring an Afghan Dam in a Taliban Stronghold
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Maj. Mike Shervington is the new commander of British troops protecting the Kajaki compound.
He says Kajaki is an “an extremely important target for [the Taliban] because of what we are providing for the people of Helmand here.”
Shervington and others say the Taliban has targeted anyone who works on projects like Kajaki. The insurgent attacks have continued despite an influx of Western and Afghan troops into the region over the past year.