Downing Street is postponing plans to increase the number of British soldiers in Iraq because of Government fears that casualties could damage the General Election campaign.
The Government has decided that expanding Britain’s effort against Islamist militants to several hundred troops could prove a vote loser if soldiers were to be killed or injured.
Any public backlash could swing what is one of the closest and most unpredictable political contests in decades.
Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said in December that extra soldiers would head to Iraq this month to train the demoralised Iraqi forces who were routed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The troops would expand Britain’s force to “the low hundreds” and would offer basic infantry training, as well as specialist advice on dealing with deadly roadside bombs, he said.Number 10 is now holding back the deployment and defence sources admitted troops would no longer be sent this month.
One Government source said: “It is unsurprising that they would not want to take that kind of risk at the moment.”
A Downing Street spokesman said the Ministry of Defence was still planning the mission, but refused to say when it would now go ahead.
He said: “We said and we’ve explained to the Iraqi authorities that we would consider how best we might be able to help on that specific area of counter-improvised explosive device training.
“The process of considering how that is best done is ongoing. I know that’s something that the MOD is doing a lot of detailed work on.”
He said planning the detail of how Britain can best train Iraqi troops was “still under way”.
The plan to send troops was discussed by the Government’s national security council before Christmas.
The mission was planned to include trainers and a small deployment of soldiers from The Parachute regiment to provide protection. They would have been deployed to four “safe areas”, one in Kurdish-held territory and three others nearer to the Iraqi capital.
Mr Fallon told The Telegraph in December: “The training we are going to be offering in January will be in infantry skills and some of the basics but particularly on how you deal with IEDs, given all the lessons we have learnt from Afghanistan. We are now looking to help them with that equipment and to run training with them in the four main training centres that the Americans are establishing.”
America has already sent hundreds of trainers to Iraq to try to bolster the Iraqi forces who collapsed spectacularly in June in the face of Isil’s lightning advance.
But the Pentagon for the first time acknowledged this week that they are coming under regular attack even though they are confined to large training bases.
A detachment of 320 US soldiers and Marines at Al Asad airbase in western Iraq have been coming under “regular” mortar fire from insurgent forces for several weeks, though the Pentagon said the attacks had been “wholly ineffective”.
A spokesman for the MoD said the Government remained “fully committed to playing an active role” in international efforts to “degrade and defeat Isil”.
The national security council had last month “agreed that we should maintain our current approach, with the focus remaining on supporting Iraqi forces, providing intelligence and surveillance capabilities and addressing the acute humanitarian needs in the region”.
The council also agreed that the MoD should “do further work to scope the additional assistance we could offer to the Iraqi military”.