British jets deployed on 1st Iraq anti-ISIS mission

A British Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon. (Reuters/Giampiero Sposito)
Armed British RAF jets have been deployed on their first mission in Iraq since UK lawmakers voted to authorize military strikes against so-called Islamic State (IS) targets in the country.

A Ministry of Defense Spokesman (MOD) confirmed on Saturday that "Royal Air Force Tornados continue to fly over Iraq and are now ready to be used in an attack role as and when appropriate targets are identified."

UK MPs vote overwhelmingly for ISIS airstrikes in Iraq

The spokesman added that no running commentary on the jets' movements would be forthcoming, but they "are pleased with the response time achieved."

On Friday, MPs in Britain's House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to take part in military action against Islamic State (also known ISIS, or ISIL).

The motion proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron's government was passed overwhelmingly by 524 votes to 43 – a majority of 481.

Britain’s three biggest parties, coalition government partners the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, plus the opposition Labour party, all officially backed the bombing campaign. The government insisted the intervention was legal under international law because it was requested by the Iraqi prime minister.

The measure did not propose any UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria, where a US-Arab coalition began bombing IS militants on Tuesday. A year ago, British MPs rejected airstrikes on Syria to oppose the government of President Bashar Assad.

Cameron told MPs early in Friday's debate the situation in Syria is “more complicated” than Iraq because of its "brutal dictator" President Assad, and the civil war that has been ongoing there for the past three years.

He noted, however, that there was a strong case for attacking IS in Syria, a proposition which both Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defense Secretary Michael Fallon have cited as a distinct possibility.

Cameron added that there was no “legal barrier” to expanding operations into Syria, though MPs were far from united on such a move.

Shadow Education Minister Rushanara Ali resigned from Labour's front bench on Friday in order to abstain from voting on the measure.

“I am not confident that this military action will be effective in the short term in just targeting the terrorists and not harming innocent civilians,” she wrote in a letter to Labour party leader Ed Miliband. “Nor can I pretend to have any confidence that there is a credible long-term strategy to build up the capacity of the Iraqi army or that the potential impact on radicalization in the UK has been properly thought through.”

She added that while a majority of British Muslims abhorred the actions of IS, there is a widespread belief in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities that military action "will only create further bloodshed and further pain for the people of Iraq.”

Public opinion, however, has turned decidedly in favor of military action following the beheading of British aid worker David Haines.

A poll conducted for The Sun newspaper, published on Friday, showed that 57 percent of UK residents surveyed said they supported bombing ISIS in Iraq, compared to 24 percent who were against the move.

Support for a bombing campaign is up by one-fifth on a similar poll last month.

Asked whether they backed strikes on IS in Syria as well, 51 percent approved of spreading the intervention while 26 percent opposed it. Meanwhile, 43 percent backed sending ground troops to Iraq, or considering sending them there.

Meanwhile, activists from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that US-led forces had launched airstrikes against Islamic State compounds in the central province of Homs and the northern region of Raqqa on Saturday, AP reports.

The targets included wheat silos west of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

On Friday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the Pentagon had already launched 43 airstrikes in Syria. According to the US government, more than 40 nations — including Syria’s Middle East neighbors of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan — have so far pledged support to the anti-IS campaign.

On Friday, Denmark pledged to send seven F-16 fighter jets to Iraq to aid in the struggle against Islamic State militants. Earlier in the week, the Netherlands and Belgium each promised to contributed six fighter jets apiece.

Washington and its allies hope to contain and ultimately destroy the extremist group, which has established a self-declared state in an area roughly one-third the size of Syria and neighboring Iraq combined.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, however, said that airstrikes alone would not be enough to eliminate the threat posed by IS militants. Although the Pentagon has been unwilling to commit ground troops to the region, Dempsey said Friday that up to 15,000 moderate Syrian rebels would been needed to dislodge IS militants from northern and eastern Syria.

Comments from the top US military official came one week after Congress approved a plan to begin training and equipping 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels to counter the IS threat.