SAS sent to Iraq to evacuate Brits from terror hotspot as Iran tensions soar

The SAS are heading out to the Middle East tonight for a ­possible rescue mission as ­tensions soared after the US killed Iran’s top military man.

Britain’s most elite forces have been mobilised in the wake of President Trump’s ­ordering the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, 62.

He died in a Reaper drone missile strike near Baghdad airport in ­neighbouring Iraq on Friday.

It is understood around 50 members of the Special Air Service and the Navy’s Special Boat Service along with the Special Forces Support Group will be sent to Iraq to help any possible ­evacuation of Britons in the region.

There are at least 1,400 military and UK government civilian personnel in Iraq as part of Operation Shader which is the UK mission to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces defeat Islamic State.

Boris Johnson is expected to return to London from ­holiday in time for ministerial meetings in No10 on Monday amid fears of all-out war breaking out in the Gulf.

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It is understood defence chiefs have ordered British troops in Iraq – numbering around 400 – to be on high alert following the assassination.

Senior commanders are concerned that British nationals could be targeted by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups based inside Iraq.

Soleimani was the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and mastermind of Iran’s Middle East operations.

He has been blamed for the deaths and maiming of thousands of British and American troops in operations across the Middle East over decades.

One senior UK defence source said: “Soleimani was an enemy combatant in  a war zone who was deploying to oversee and orchestrate Iranian ­operations in a foreign country which would have resulted in the deaths of US soldiers, ­civilians and potentially British personnel as well. 

“He knew the risks and took his chances as all troops do and he paid the price.

“Soleimani had been a marked man for quite a while. He had the blood of many British soldiers on his hands.

“The attack was all about sending a message to the Iranian leadership and that is that the US can get at you at any time and in any place.”

Last night several rockets landed near the US embassy in Baghdad, injuring five people.

Three more rockets were reportedly fired at Balad Airbase housing American troops north of Baghdad.

In another development Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced British warships would resume ­operations in the Strait of Hormuz.

HMS Montrose and HMS Defender are already in the Gulf and will act as escorts to British tankers to prevent them being seized by Iran’s navy.

Mr Wallace said: “The Government will take all necessary steps to protect our ships and citizens at this time.”

At least 35 targets in the US and Israel have been identified by Iran for retaliatory strikes after the country’s president vowed to exact revenge for the killing of General Soleimani.

Targets include ships in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and Tel Aviv.

The US State Department said: “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to ­attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

Thousands of mourners chanted “Death to America” yesterday as they marched in Soleimani’s funeral procession in Baghdad as US and UK flags were publicly burned.

It is feared that all-out war could break out in the region if Iran calls on its allies Russia and China to help as tensions rise.

The Foreign Office yesterday strengthened its warnings over travel to the Middle East.

British nationals were advised not to travel to Iraq or Iran.

The Foreign Office warned that anyone in Iraq outside the Kurdistan region should consider leaving by ­commercial means because the ­uncertain security situation could ­deteriorate quickly.

Alerts regarding other Middle East nations were also being increased, with warnings that Britons should remain vigilant in Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab , who will visit the US next week to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a previously planned visit, said: “The first job of any Government is to keep British people safe.”

An American official denied the nation was behind a second air strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad.

Iraq’s state TV reported that the attack killed six people in a medical convoy.

US president Donald Trump said his order to kill Soleimani was “to stop a war, not to start one”.

Back in 2007 Soleimani was involved in backing pro-Iranian militia groups in southern Iraq.

These factions targeted British troops with bombs and rockets, killing and maiming a significant number.

In response the SAS set up a special operation to wipe out the Iranian-backed cells. But a mission to kill Soleimani was reportedly blocked by David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary.

A British military source said: “The Foreign Secretary said that he wanted to talk to the Iranians, not kill them.

“We had Soleimani in our ­crosshairs, but we had to call the operation off because of sensitivities in London about conducting this type of operation.”

There has been criticism of the US for not giving advanced notice of the attack to the UK.

Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the failure to notify was regrettable because allies should ensure there are no surprises in the relationship.

Mr Hunt said: “This is a very, very risky situation, and I think the job that we have to do as one of the US’s closest allies is to use our influence.”

Friday’s attack also killed four Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards and five of Iraq’s pro-Iran paramilitaries.

Iraq, whose prime minister attended the funerals yesterday, threatened to order the expulsion of all US troops from the country after what it called “a brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty”.

The Ministry of Defence last night said it would not comment on special forces operations.

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