Iraq air strikes: RAF set to target Islamic State militants

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "We will play our part"

British warplanes are awaiting orders to launch missile attacks against Islamic State (IS) after Parliament backed military action in Iraq.

Six Tornado G4 fighters have been based in Cyprus since August but so far have been used only for reconnaissance.

The bombers are expected to lead any British operations targeting IS.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK was there to "play our part and to help deal with this appalling terrorist organisation".

On Friday, MPs from all three main Westminster parties voted for military action by 524 votes to 43. Britain has stopped short of extending its support to operations in Syria.

'Long campaign'

As well as the Tornados at the British Akrotiri base in Cyprus, the RAF also has a Rivet Joint spy plane - successor to the Nimrod - in the region.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said "intensified surveillance" would identify "convoys" of IS fighters.

He told BBC's Newsnight the campaign would be "long and drawn out".

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Media captionMichael Fallon, Defence Secretary: "There is a strong legal case for action in Syria but it's a much more complicated picture"

"You should not expect immediate shock and awe - a wave of fighters or bombers taking off," he said.

The aim in Iraq was to "push" IS out of the country and improve its security situation within its "existing borders", he told the programme.

Interviewed in the Sun newspaper, Mr Cameron confirmed the first RAF sorties would happen "relatively rapidly" now MPs had sanctioned action.

He added that the fight against IS and extremism in other countries was a "generational struggle" that could take longer than a three-year timescale set out by Mr Fallon.

"Hopefully we will be able to achieve success faster than that. But you know, it might take longer. It will take time," he said.

Speaking later in Oxfordshire, Mr Cameron said: "We are one part of a large international coalition but the crucial part of that coalition is that it's led by the Iraqi government, the legitimate government of Iraq, and its security forces."

Home Secretary Theresa May told the Times newspaper that new powers to target Britons who travel abroad to fight with IS, including the seizure of passports, could be introduced before the end of November.

IS - sometimes referred to as Isis or Isil - is using the Syrian city of Raqqa as the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

It controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq after rapid advances through the region in the summer.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Britain's Tornado aircraft - seen here in August - are set to join the US-led operations in Iraq
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Anti-war protesters gathered in Westminster on Friday but MPs overwhelmingly backed military action

The US has been carrying out missile strikes against IS targets in northern Iraq since mid-August and American raids over Syria are now "near continuous", an official told the AFP news agency on Friday.

The latest air strikes are understood to have hit IS fighters laying siege to the Syrian town of Kobane, close to the border with Turkey. But there has been no word from the US-led coalition on whether it carried out air strikes in the area.

The Americans have said IS is being damaged by the air operations but will not be defeated without ground combat.

Downing Street has said it would seek separate Parliamentary approval for the extension of air strikes to Syria but reserved the right to act without consulting MPs in the event of a humanitarian emergency.

During the debate Mr Cameron said there was "no legal barrier" to military action in Syria, but he acknowledged there was no consensus among MPs for such a move.

'Same mistakes'

At least two British hostages are thought to be being held by IS - journalist John Cantlie and taxi driver Alan Henning, who had been delivering humanitarian aid to Syria.

The defence secretary said the UK would not allow "overall strategic decisions" to be affected by the plight of the men.

"Both those lives very sadly are in danger anyway," Mr Fallon said.

Jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have acted alongside the US, and America says more than 40 countries have offered to join the anti-IS coalition.

French fighter jets are already taking part in strikes in Iraq, and Belgium and Denmark are also sending planes.

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Media captionDavid Cameron: Mission against IS in Iraq will take "not just months but years"

On Friday some 23 Labour MPs voted against air strikes, as did six Conservatives, one Liberal Democrat, two Plaid Cymru MPs and five Scottish National Party MPs.

They were joined in the no lobby by Green MP Caroline Lucas, three Social Democratic and Labour party MPs and Respect MP George Galloway. Two MPs acted as no tellers during the vote, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP's Pete Wishart.

Labour leader Ed Miliband also backed intervention, telling MPs inaction would lead to "more killing" in Iraq.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it was "impossible to reason with" IS

Speaking after the vote on Friday, Labour MP John McDonnell warned the 2003 war in Iraq was one of the reasons for the rise of IS and said the UK seemed to be "making the same mistakes" again.

Who are Islamic State (IS)?

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Media captionIn 60 seconds: What does Islamic State want?
  • Formed out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2013, IS first captured Raqqa in eastern Syria
  • It captured broad swathes of Iraq in June, including Mosul, and declared a "caliphate" in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq
  • Pursuing an extreme form of Sunni Islam, IS has persecuted non-Muslims such as Yazidis and Christians, as well as Shia Muslims, whom it regards as heretics
  • Known for its brutal tactics, including beheadings of soldiers, Western journalists and aid workers
  • The CIA says the group could have as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria