At least 400 British Muslims have joined the jihadist fanatics bringing terror to Iraq and Syria, William Hague warned last night.
In his first statement to MPs since the crisis in Iraq erupted more than a week ago, the Foreign Secretary said security chiefs were becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect that British extremists waging jihad in the region could bring their murderous philosophy and methods to the streets of the UK.
He said some were ‘inevitably fighting with ISIS’ – the extremist group whose barbaric tactics and seizure of a huge swathes of Iraq have provoked international outrage.
Mr Hague also revealed Britain was on the brink of an astonishing diplomatic U-turn over Iran, in the hope that Tehran may be able to help prevent the total collapse of its neighbour.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has held talks with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the growing crisis in Iraq
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also offered ‘passive assistance’ to the US, hinting Britain could allow airbases to be used to launch ‘well-judged, targeted action’ against the rapid spread of the ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Iraq has been plunged into its bloodiest crisis since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. ISIS rebels, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are said to have murdered 1,700 soldiers last week.
Iran’s President Rouhani has said he is was willing to take part in talks with other countries and has claimed to have had written correspondence with US President Barack Obama.
Mr Hague revealed he had also spoken to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Foreign Secretary told the Commons: ‘We do have, over many decades including now, important common interests with Iran. That includes stability in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
‘There are many other issues – dealing with the narcotics trade and so on – on which Iran and the UK have common interests.
BRITS ARE AMONG EXTREMISTS FIGHTING IN IRAQ, SAYS HAGUE
Britons will ‘inevitably’ be fighting alongside the extremist group which has overrun large parts of Iraq, Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs.
Mr Hague said it was possible that Britons who had travelled to Syria to fight in the country’s bloody civil war could be among militants in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which the Foreign Secretary called the ‘most violent and brutal militant group in the Middle East’.
In a Commons statement updating MPs on the crisis, Mr Hague repeated his position that there was no prospect of a British military intervention to tackle Isis in Iraq.
But he said counter-terrorism support could be offered to the government in Baghdad and a Ministry of Defence (MoD) team had been sent to the country to assist embassy staff in contingency planning.
He said the majority of Isis’ members were Iraqi or Syrian but ‘it also includes a significant number of foreign fighters among its ranks’.
Mr Hague said: ‘As I have previously told this House, we estimate the number of UK-linked individuals fighting in Syria to include approximately 400 British nationals and other UK-linked individuals who could present a particular risk should they return to the UK.’
He said ‘some of these, inevitably’ are ‘fighting with’ Isis.
The Foreign Secretary said: ‘We are taking action in three areas:
promoting political unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state and stability in the region; offering assistance where appropriate and possible and alleviating humanitarian suffering.
‘We have made it clear this does not involve planning a military intervention by the United Kingdom.’
‘That is a very good argument for trying to advance our bilateral relations. Of course, we do also have to deal with the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.
‘We do need Iran to make its contribution to stability in the region by seizing support for sectarian groups in other parts of the region.’
It came amid reports that Tehran is considering military support to the Shia-led administration in Iraq.
Representatives of Iran and the Western powers met in Vienna to discuss international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Foreign Office declined to discuss the content of Mr Hague’s call. The Foreign Secretary will brief MPs on the latest situation in an oral statement to the House of Commons this afternoon.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman indicated that the UK saw a role for regional powers such as Iran in supporting the Baghdad government, telling reporters at a Westminster media briefing: ‘In terms of the decisions around the immediate security response in Iraq, those are for the Iraqi authorities to take.
‘Is there a wider regional issue here and is there a role in the region supporting the Iraqi government in trying as much as possible to take a broad-based and inclusive approach going forward and avoiding some of the risks of a sectarian approach, as the Foreign Secretary was talking about? Yes.
‘Is there a role for the region and the international community as a whole to support this approach of unity and co-operation – as the Foreign Secretary described it this morning? Yes, I think there is a regional angle to it.’
Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the Government’s move to open talks with the Iranians – but called on Mr Hague to be ‘more positive’ about Britain’s relations with the Middle Eastern power.
He told the BBC’s World at One radio programme: ‘There is a strategic necessity and opportunity to engage more with Iran.’
A map of northern Iraq shows the towns and cities taken over by Sunni insurgents and Kurdish Peshmerga
BRITAIN WILL NOT TAKE ACTION BUT WILL BACK THE US, SAYS CLEGG
Britain will not block well-judged, targeted action by the US against Iraq, Nick Clegg said.
The Deputy Prime Minister suggested the UK could allow its bases to be used to launch attacks on ISIS forces.
Speaking at a press confernece in London, Mr Clegg said: ‘We will not be providing active frontline military resources to the action taken.
‘But we are certainly not going to stand in the way of action that is well-judged and well-targeted. I am not suggesting we will rule out passive assistance even if we are not going to embark on our own active role.
‘We are not going to start deploying British military forces in Iraq. We will equally not stand in the way of America, in particular, seeking to take well-judged, targeted action.
‘That is why it is sensible of President Obama to take his time to assess options. Obviously we will be comparing notes.’
But Conservative Rory Stewart, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, warned against fuelling the unrest by involving Tehran because it is seen by Sunnis ‘as part of the problem’.
He told the programme: ‘Involving them will strengthen al-Maliki’s hand, it will provide resources to Baghdad but it is not going to solve the fundamental problem, which is regaining the trust of the Sunni population.
‘They are going to be alienated by a stronger Iranian hand in Iraqi politics.’
He added: ‘It’s a horrendous situation. Nobody should doubt that this is almost the worst nightmare that the West imagined in Iraq.’
At the weekend Iran’s President Rouhani refused to rule out working with Britain and the US to defeat the Iraqi insurgents. He said: ‘When the US takes action, then one can think about cooperation. Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law.’
It is not clear how talks with Iran, which refers to the U.S. as the ‘Great Satan’, would take place, and other countries have expressed concern that any deal could damage negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Amid international outrage at the atrocity, President Obama is weighing up what help to give Baghdad to counter the land-grab by the al-Qaida-inspired ISIS.
The British government has ruled out any new military intervention, in part because the Commons last year voted against action in Syria.
Mr Hague told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘So many situations can arise in the world that we cannot predict that to absolutely rule all things out in all circumstances tends to be a mistake.
‘But in this situation today, in Iraq, with what we’ve seen in recent days, are we looking at a British military intervention? No, we’re not. I can’t be clearer than that.’
Britain has already offered humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people displaced in the north, and Mr Hague hinted that British special forces could be offered.
‘I’ve said that we might be able to help with counter-terrorism expertise. We are looking at that now,’ he said.
However, Mr Hague, who also voted for the 2003 war, denied that the invasion had itself been a mistake.
‘No, I don’t think the invasion itself was a mistake. I have always thought that many mistakes occurred in the aftermath of the invasion.
‘It’s entirely possible to say that it was the right thing to remove Saddam Hussein, but that mistakes were made in the aftermath of that.’
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Britain would not attempt to ‘stand in the way’ of a well-judged US initiative to restore order in Iraq.
Mr Clegg told a Whitehall press conference: ‘We are not providing active, frontline resources to any action that is taken but of course we will want to talk to the United States and other allies about what can be done.
‘We are certainly not going to stand in the way of action that is well-judged and well-targeted in order to try to re-assert some semblance of order in Iraq. I think only the United States can deploy the kind of resources that may make a difference.’