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Johnson to chair national security council amid deepening Gulf crisis

House of Commons/PA Wire

By Gavin Cordon and Patrick Daly, PA Political Staff

Boris Johnson is to chair a meeting of the National Security Council as Britain continues to urge all sides in the Gulf crisis to draw back from all-out conflict.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke on Monday to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to stress the need for a diplomatic resolution to avoid a renewed conflict in the region.

Mr Raab will travel to Brussels on Tuesday for talks with his European counterparts on the situation in the Middle East, the Foreign Office confirmed.

The so-called "E3" - Britain, Germany and France - have jointly called for "de-escalation" of the tensions between the US and Iran.

Tehran has vowed "severe revenge" for the killing of its top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a US drone strike last week.

President Donald Trump in turn warned that the US was ready to strike back in a "disproportionate" manner if the Iranians hit US targets.

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on reports that it is stepping up contingency plans to evacuate military and civilian personnel from neighbouring Iraq amid fears they could be targets for Iranian reprisals.

The Times reported that a team of around 20 senior military planners and liaison officers had been dispatched to the embassy in Baghdad over the weekend.

The Foreign Office was coy over reports that it was scaling back staffing at British embassies in the Middle East.

A spokesman said: "The British embassies in both Baghdad and Tehran are open.

"The safety and security of our staff is of paramount importance and we keep our security posture under regular review."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is due to update MPs - returning to Westminster following their Christmas break - on the latest situation in the region.

The Prime Minister has faced criticism that he was slow to respond to the crisis - only returning to the UK at the weekend following his new year break on the private Caribbean island of Mustique.

Former national security adviser Lord Ricketts said ministers should have been quicker to react to the escalation.

Lord Ricketts said he would have expected the National Security Council to have met on Friday, when the killing of General Soleimani took place, to co-ordinate measures to ensure British nationals were protected.

"I'm glad to see that the wheels are now in motion and things are happening but we are four days downwind of this sudden and dramatic escalation," he said.

Mr Johnson has sought to tread a delicate diplomatic path - joining with French and German allies in calling for calm in the region.

At the same time, he is anxious to maintain good relations with the Trump administration ahead of talks with the US on a post-Brexit trade deal.

Mr Raab is due to fly to Washington later this week to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he criticised the lack of support by the Europeans - including the UK - for the US action.

The Foreign Secretary echoed Mr Johnson in saying the UK would not "lament" the passing of General Soleimani, whom he described as a "regional threat".

However he also warned that a threat by Mr Trump to target Iranian cultural sites would be a breach of international law.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper was forced to deny that America was about to withdraw its troops from Iraq where the strike on General Soleimani took place.

A leaked letter from a US Marine Corps commander said: "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

It followed a vote in the Iraqi parliament on Sunday, backed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops including British forces.

The Pentagon said the letter, addressed to the Iraqi defence ministry, had been a "poorly worded" draft which should never have been released.

Mr Esper told reporters in Washington: "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq. There's no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave."

Mr Johnson emphasised the need to maintain a coalition presence in Iraq against Islamic State when he spoke by telephone to Mr Abdul-Mahdi on Monday.

Around 400 UK troops are stationed in Iraq in the fight against IS, while the US has 5,200, prompting fears of a withdrawal that could cripple the battle against the terror group.

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