THC stars again...

TCH has his finger firmly on the puse as always. His name will find a place in the annals (anals?) of military history - those books on military blunders!

Hoon 'kept in the dark' over Black Watch
By Michael Evans and Tom Baldwin

GEOFF HOON astonished MPs on the Commons Defence Committee yesterday when he revealed that he had not discussed the possible deployment of the Black Watch to a US sector in Iraq when he met his American counterpart in early October.
The formal request from the American military was passed to the British authorities on October 10.

However, a week earlier, the Defence Secretary met Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, at a Nato meeting. Mr Hoon, appearing before the Defence Committee, said that Mr Rumsfeld had not raised with him the imminent request for British troops to redeploy to a new location south of Baghdad.

“I saw my American counterpart the week before at a Nato meeting and he didn’t mention it,” he told the MPs.

However, the Black Watch soldiers had been given notice by their commanding officer in early October that they might not be able to go home in November, as had been planned. This warning, which was relayed to the soldiers’ families, was the first news to be made public of the upcoming deployment.

Mr Hoon insisted that although there were routine discussions between the US and British military in Iraq, the first that he knew of a request for an armoured infantry battle group to be redeployed was on October 10.

He was being questioned by increasingly sceptical MPs on the committee, who found it difficult to believe that there had been no political discussions about the decision before it was announced.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons on October 19 that he had first heard of the possible redeployment of British troops “two weeks ago” — which would be on or about October 5 — when he was on a visit to Baghdad.

Mr Hoon told the MPs yesterday that the new mission for the Black Watch battle group was not dissimilar to the one that it had carried out in al-Amarah in the south, where it had faced significant hostile activity.

However, he gave warning that if the American and Iraqi force now being built up around Fallujah went ahead with an operation against insurgents in the city, it would have an impact for the Black Watch, with increased activity from hostile forces in their new area.

Mr Hoon said that the soldiers could anticipate returning to their base in the south of Iraq within 30 days.

Asked if the British troops might be able to make a difference in their new area by approaching the mission in a different way from the Americans, Mr Hoon said that it was “unfair stereotyping” of the Americans to suggest that they were a more robust force.

He has, though, urged the Pentagon to use ground troops rather than airstrikes as the primary means of wresting control of Fallujah from Iraqi militants in the looming offensive. Ministers accept the need for “judicious use of bombing” to loosen the militants’ grip on Fallujah, but The Times has been told that Britain wants to keep open the possibility of a “long-term political settlement” in the rebel city.

Senior government figures also want to ensure that Iyad Allawi’s interim Iraqi Government is consulted on every stage of the military operation.

There have been signs of divisions within the Iraqi leadership, with Ghazi al-Yawer, the president of the interim Government, who helped to negotiate the lifting of the US siege of Fallujah in April, saying that the coalition’s handling of the crisis was “wrong”.

He told the Kuwaiti daily newspaper al-Qabas: “What is needed is that the coalition forces continue dialogue so that the Iraqi Armed Forces will come, which will prompt those on the sidelines not to join the rebels.”

Geoff Hoon astonished MPs yesterday by revealing how he was apparently kept in the dark about controversial US plans to request the redeployment of the Black Watch in Iraq.

The Defence Secretary said he met Donald Rumsfeld, his American counterpart, a week before Washington submitted a formal request for the British troops to be sent to a trouble spot near Baghdad but Mr Rumsfeld "did not mention it".

Giving evidence to the Commons defence committee, Mr Hoon said he was not surprised that Mr Rumsfeld had not raised the issue because it was primarily a military matter, rather than a political one.

But one MP said he was "frankly astounded" that Mr Rumsfeld did not see fit to discuss the matter with Mr Hoon when the two men met at a Nato meeting.

The decision to redeploy the Black Watch was hugely unpopular with Labour MPs. Many of them suspected that the 800 British troops were being sent to a danger zone to help George Bush in the run-up to the election.

Asked to explain why Mr Rumsfeld had not discussed the matter with him, Mr Hoon said the fact that British ministers were accountable to Parliament meant that they were sometimes told more about military decision making than their political counterparts in other countries.

He said that the request to redeploy the Black Watch - formally submitted on Oct 10 - was "military to military" and not duplicated at a political level.

James Cran, a Conservative member of the committee, said: "I'm frankly astounded that you have two allies as close as the UK and the US with a highly controversial request and that there was no high-level political contact at a much earlier stage."

The Defence Secretary was also asked about an email published in The Telegraph last week from a senior member of the Black Watch in which he suggested that the Government did not fully understand the risk facing the soldiers during the redeployment near Iskanderiyah, 25 miles south of Baghdad.

Mr Hoon rejected the charge. "I'm not assuming for a moment that there are not risks. But the military advice that I received suggested that the threat was comparable to the kind of threat that that particular battle group had faced in the earlier part of the summer," he said.

Mr Hoon strongly defended the deployment of the Black Watch to support American forces around Baghdad.

But Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, said Mr Hoon's assertions did not "stack up". He said he did not believe that the Americans could not have found troops themselves.

"It is not credible for them to suggest that they could not have done that had they chosen to do so. So it can't be wrong for us to assume that in some way the political dimension in the United States played a significant part in this deployment," he said.

Mr Hoon insisted that the Americans did not have an armoured infantry battalion like the Black Watch available for deployment within the time required.

The 850-strong Black Watch battle group has been sent to release US forces in the area south of Baghdad for the expected all-out assault on Fallujah.

Mr Hoon was questioned by Dai Havard, the Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, about the role which the Black Watch will be fulfilling.

Mr Havard put it to Mr Hoon that in the event of a major US attack on the rebel stronghold, the British troops would act as "rat-catchers", intercepting insurgents as they fled the city.

Mr Hoon told the committee: "They are there dominating a particular area, doing some of what you describe undoubtedly in the event of there being heightened activity surrounding other operations elsewhere.

"But essentially their job is to maintain stability in a particular, defined area."

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