Britain is expected Wednesday to transform its military engagement in Iraq when it approves a US request to transfer hundreds of troops to the explosive sector around Baghdad.
The decision, aimed at freeing up US manpower for an all-out assault on the lawless city of Fallujah, is generating deep disquiet here, where a public, at best skeptical about the war, is nervous of "mission creep" and the prospect of being drawn deeper into the conflict in Iraq.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has indicated that the decision is a foregone conclusion. America asked for a battle group of around 650 men to be moved into a zone south of Baghdad. Mr. Hoon said Britain would have "failed in our duty as an ally" if it did not accede to the request. British reconnaissance units are already scouting out the mission.
But war-weary members of Parliament and military experts note that the "backfill" mission is fraught with danger. The unit, expected to be Scotland's battle-hardened Black Watch regiment, would be removed from the relatively calm southern sector around Basra, transplanted 200 miles north into the heat of the Sunni insurgency, and established under US command.
Britons fear that casualties would mount rapidly. So far, Britain has lost 68 servicemen in Iraq - and only 24 to hostile episodes. This compares with more than 1,000 for the US. The discrepancy is in large part due to the higher US troop numbers on the ground (130,000 to around 8,000) and the violent uprising besetting central Iraq, where American forces operate.
"It's classic mission creep," says Maj. Charles Heyman, a defense expert with Jane's Information Group. "Going into the Sunni triangle is going to result in British casualties. There is no doubt about that. This is not something that the British public signed up to." Most Britons hoped a short campaign and a timely exit from Iraq.
The troop movement is driven by an election, though which one depends on one's point of view. The military says the British reinforcement will release American units for a mission vital to the success of Iraq's January ballot. The US military and Iraqi interim government have made it clear that they intend to subjugate, by force if necessary, the rebellious parts of the country so elections can take place.
But skeptics in Britain see another election influencing the decision: the Nov. 2 US vote. For President Bush, the move demonstrates in a timely fashion that he has international allies prepared to share the pain of war, and that could be useful ammunition as the race, dominated by the situation in Iraq, enters the home stretch.
"There is a political element to this redeployment," says Michael Clarke, professor of defense studies at King's College, London. "You can't pretend it won't have an impact on Bush's reelection chances."
There is of course a third election that could be impacted by the decision: Britain's own general election, expected next spring. A successful mission would enhance Tony Blair's credentials and keep war critics at bay.
But any reversals - and the move promises many potential setbacks - are likely to weigh heavily at the polls. Seventy-one percent of people wanted Blair to set a date for troop pullout, not wade deeper into the imbroglio, according to the most recent survey.
Militarily, the transfer is workable and even shrewd, experts say. The Black Watch has long experience in Iraq, having taken part in the 2003 invasion, and as such is better placed than fresh US troops would be. It could be used to guard supply convoys through volatile terrain or may be used to shore up an entire sector, perhaps the Iskandariya-Latifiya hot spot south of Baghdad. The force, which may number closer to 1,000 when support staff are included, could make a real impact, despite its relatively small size, experts say.
"One highly trained battle group from the UK can make a big difference," says Major Heyman. "These are professionals, not national guardsmen. Multiply that figure by at least five to get their true effectiveness."
But the dangers are formidable. Public skepticism is only likely to be reinforced if British casualties skyrocket. The public here has, after all, become used to short, successful military interventions after the experience of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone in recent years. "The British public is not frightened of casualties, but it does get angry at pointless casualties," says Professor Clarke. "This is Blair's problem."
"This deployment could be the thin end of a pretty thick wedge," he adds. "If the US offensive in Fallujah goes wrong, then the British will have to stay and maybe reinforce. This may be the beginning of a war that we didn't sign up for."
The deployment also makes British forces subject to American command, which has worked in the past but presents problems in its approach to peacekeeping.
"The US is more aggressive than we are," notes Jeremy Kitsell, a former reservist who served for five months in southern Iraq. "With all the peacekeeping we have done all over the world, we tend to do it better than them. They tend to be rougher."
Members of Parliament have also homed in on this risk. Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Parliament this week: "It is the restraint by the British forces that has won them respect among the Iraqis. Is it really possible for them to maintain that restraint if they are redeployed to a US sector that has not been showing the same level of restraint?"
Removing the Black Watch from Basra will, moreover, strip the British sector of its reserve unit - a force that was required when violence flared up there in August. Prolonged absence would probably necessitate reinforcements.
"We do have a reserve force in Cyprus, and if the British commanders on the ground wanted them to deploy for any reason then they would be sent down there as quickly as possible," says one defense ministry official.