U.K. forces deployed at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq will train further forward and provide increased force protection for U.K. personnel near Coalition bases, the British Ministry of Defence said.
Personnel from 2nd Battalion The Rifles (2 Rifles) currently at Al Asad and providing infantry, counter-IED, engineering and combat medical training to the Iraqi Security Forces will now patrol outside the base perimeter, the ministry said in a Monday, October 23 statement.
According to the The Daily Mirror, U.K. ground forces have not ventured beyond the airbase perimeter for eight years.
An additional Light Surgical team composed of Royal Air Force medics and Army Medical Corps personnel is also being deployed to Al Asad, and “will be able to provide world leading medical treatment to Coalition forces within the critical “Golden Hour” after being wounded,” the statement said.
The deployment of British engineers at the base is to be extended by six months, the ministry added. An additional 44 Royal Engineers troops were deployed to the airbase in August, bringing the total the number of U.K. personnel at Al Asad to more than 300.
Defense minister Sir Michael Fallon said that the fight against Islamic State was not yet over, and “as the nature of the Coalition campaign changes, the role we play must adapt too.”
Fallon added that the British training mission was aimed at improving Iraq’s long-term stability and the security of the U.K.
According to the MoD, more than 600 British soldiers are on the ground in Iraq, and have helped train over 58,000 Iraqi Security Forces. The ministry says a total of just over 1,400 U.K. military personnel are deployed to the region in the fight against ISIS.
RAF aircraft have carried out over 1,600 airstrikes against Daesh.
Qaim offensive soon?
The U.K. move adds to speculation that a U.S.-led Coalition offensive targeting the border town of Qaim will soon begin. Al Asad Airbase is around 140 kilometers (87 miles) from the strategic border town, an area that has become ISIS’ last stronghold in the area.
Airstrikes on the town and Al Bukamal, just across the border in Syria have increased in number and intensity in recent days, after U.S. Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, tweeted on October 12 that Iraqi forces were moving from Hawija to west Anbar to focus on Qaim and Rawa.
More recently, tensions between Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan authorities over Kirkuk threatened to derail plans for the offensive, but U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told The Defense Post on October 16 that the Pentagon does anticipate any delays to the Qaim operation.
A commander of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces – known as the Golden Division – has also reportedly been at the airbase recently, but The Defense Post has not confirmed this.