SHAFAQNA – Britain is prepared to begin air strikes against jihadist extremists in Iraq following talks between David Cameron and Barack Obama, defence sources have disclosed. The Prime Minister is expected to use a meeting of the UN General Assembly tomorrow to announce that the UK will join air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). In a bid to show his commitment to forming a coalition of nations willing to take on Isil, the Prime Minsiter is also holding talks with Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran. They will be the first face-to-face talks between a prime minister and an Iranian president since the Iranian revolution in 1979, which saw the Shah overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic. Senior Conservative sources have said that they expect Mr Cameron to recall Parliament this week to approve military action. Defence sources have told The Telegraph that fighter jets could begin raids on Iraqi Isil targets within hours of an order from Mr Cameron.
British Tornado jets in the region have “been ready to go for weeks”, one source said.
However, it is understood that Mr Cameron will stop short of announcing any military involvement in Syria, where a growing humanitarian crisis is unfolding.
Pressure on him and Mr Obama to intervene in Syria is growing after it emerged that about 100,000 refugees are trying to flee to Turkey as Isil advances.
The Prime Minister is acutely aware of opposition in all three political parties to a Syrian intervention and does not want a repeat of last year, when Labour and dozens of Tory MPs opposed British air strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The British decision to join military action in Iraq comes three years after the last troops left following the 2003 war. Mr Cameron has insisted that if air strikes go ahead, there will be no mission in Iraq or Syria involving ground forces.
The Government is also increasingly confident that Ed Miliband will back plans for air strikes in Iraq.
Mr Cameron and Mr Obama have both pledged to “destroy” the Isil extremists responsible for murdering two American hostages and David Haines, a British aid worker.
Alan Henning, who was also providing aid to Syrian refugees, is one of two British hostages currently being held by Isil. The other, John Cantlie, is a journalist.
Mr Cameron is expected to use his speech to set out British and American plans to combat Isil, including targeted military air strikes.
RAF Tornado GR4 jets would be ready to bomb Isil targets as soon as the Prime Minister gave the order, sources said. Six Tornados supported by a Voyager refuelling tanker have been flying reconnaissance missions over northern Iraq since moving to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus in mid-August.
Senior government sources made clear that a “final decision” on military action will be taken after Mr Cameron’s talks with Mr Obama. But they said that military strikes are “under consideration”. Any bombing campaign will be part of a “broad strategy” to ensure that Iraqi and Kurdish forces can lead the fight on the ground against Isil, the sources added.
The Telegraph also understands that Labour is preparing to back air strikes in Iraq. Mr Miliband was last year heavily criticised after refusing to back planned air strikes on al-Assad’s regime in Syria. One Labour frontbencher said: “The party will fall into line [over air strikes in Iraq] because there is not the same moral objection as there was last year.”
In the Syria vote, there was also a rebellion by 30 Tory MPs. Tory whips have spent recent weeks canvassing support for military action among backbenchers. Downing Street believes the “mood has shifted” in the Tory party towards joining America in any military intervention in northern Iraq.
Sources said the British Tornados already in the region could quickly be fitted with Paveway IV guided bombs or Brimstone missiles to carry out strikes on Isil vehicles and convoys.
An RAF source said: “The current aircraft in Akrotiri are sufficient to carry out significant drops on a small force like Isil. If the Prime Minister says start bombing tonight, we will begin bombing that night.”
An RAF Rivet Joint surveillance plane is also flying missions from Al Udeid air base in Qatar to eavesdrop on the militants’ communications.
The talks with Mr Rouhani are being seen as a significant intervention by Mr Cameron and a sign of his commitment to win international support for the bid to take on Isil. Downing Street last night made clear that Mr Cameron will also discuss his concerns over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, and call on Mr Rouhani to stop supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
He will also hold talks with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president.
However, Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to Iraq, said air strikes alone would be of “limited effect”. “The most effective ones so far have been in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, he said. “If you use them indiscriminately, they have the potential to provoke support for Isil.”