America's military commander in Iraq ordered British troops to prepare a full-scale ground offensive against Iranian forces that had crossed the border and grabbed disputed territory, a senior officer has disclosed.
An attack would almost certainly have provoked open conflict with Iran. But the British chose instead to resolve the matter through diplomatic channels.
Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez
"If we had attacked the Iranian positions, all hell would have broken loose," a defence source said yesterday.
"We would have had the Iranians to our front and the Iraqi insurgents picking us off at the rear."
The incident was disclosed by a senior British officer at a conference in London last week and is reported in today's edition of Defence Analysis. The identity of the officer is not given.
"Some Iranian border and observation posts were re-positioned over the border, broadly a kilometre into Iraq," a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.
The incident began last July when Revolutionary Guards pushed about a kilometre into Iraq to the north and east of Basra in an apparent attempt to reoccupy territory which they claimed belonged to Iran.
Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez then ordered the British to prepare to send in several thousand troops to attack the Revolutionary Guard positions.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps has 125,000 soldiers, making it 25 per cent larger than the entire British Army, and is equipped with 500 tanks, 600 armoured personnel carriers and 360 artillery weapons.
The incident is reminiscent of the exchange during the Kosovo conflict between the American general, Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander Europe, and Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander.
When Gen Clark told Gen Jackson to send British troops into Pristina airport to prevent Russian troops from taking control Gen Jackson refused. He was reported to have said: "I am not going to start World War Three for you."
The Iran-Iraq incident lasted around a week and was resolved by a telephone conversation between Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Kamal Kharrazi, his Iranian counterpart, British officials said.
"It did look rather nasty at the time," one official said. "But we were always confident it was a mistake and could be resolved by diplomatic means. We got in touch with Baghdad and said, 'Don't do anything silly; we are talking to the Iranians.' "
While Mr Straw was trying to resolve the issue peacefully, British military commanders on the ground were calming their Iranian counterparts, the ministry said.
The Revolutionary Guard was believed to be behind the seizure of eight Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel last week after they strayed across the disputed border between Iraq and Iran.
The eight men, who were delivering patrol boats to the Iraqi riverine patrol service, were released - but not before they were paraded blindfolded on Iranian television.
THE WORLD IS A BRIDGE, CROSS IT, BUT BUILD NO HOUSE UPON IT!
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CIA agent Geoffrey Kemp talking about Saddam Hussein:
WE KNEW HE WAS A SON OF A BITCH, BUT HE WAS OUR SON OF A BITCH