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Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 14:47 GMT
UK plays down Iraq force 'requests'
British tank soldier on patrol as part of the Allied Desert Storm operation in 1991
A Desert Storm-style plan is reportedly being considered
Downing Street has played down reports that the US has requested 25,000 UK troops to join an attack on Saddam Hussein.

The Observer newspaper said the troops had been requested as part of a possible ground force aimed at overthrowing the Iraqi president.

All these kind of concerns are properly expressed and it is right to do it in Parliament.

John Prescott
"No decisions have been taken, let alone any requests made," a Number 10 spokesman said.

However, the Labour chairman of the Commons' foreign affairs committee, Donald Anderson, said it would be "foolish" to rule out a military strike against Iraq.

Mr Anderson said: "I think that there are fairly reckless elements in the Pentagon who are on a roll now because of Afghanistan.

"I would hope part of the task of our government is to influence those who take a contrary view and want to work within the United Nations Security Council and get the weapons inspectors back [inside Iraq]."

Split denied

Separately Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has rejected media speculation of a Cabinet split over Iraq as "press prattle".

But International Development Secretary Clare Short said she would not support "mass attacks on the poor old Iraqi people".

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
The US has threatened to remove Saddam Hussein by force
Mr Prescott acknowledged "concerns" both in the government and on the backbenches.

"It is a most united Cabinet," he told BBC One's Breakfast With Frost programme.

"It has concerns, of course it has, but so do the backbenchers as well.

"But they had them about Afghanistan where they all thought it would go for an awful long time and there would be many deaths. Not true.

"They had the same concerns about the Gulf War... that we were really going into Iraq, we didn't.

"All these kind of concerns are properly expressed and it is right to do it in Parliament.

"But it doesn't mean to say that they are right in their judgment."

Political price

Labour's George Galloway, who last week clashed with Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw during a debate on Iraq, warned Mr Blair that he would pay a "very high political price" for joining a war which would be a "considerable disaster for the Middle East".

While Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy told his party's spring conference there should be no "blank cheque" in terms of the support offered by Britain to the US.

The US has threatened action against Iraq unless it lets UN weapons inspectors back into the country - and possibly even if it does.

The Observer suggested that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was considering three options for a possible assault on Iraq:

  • 25,000 UK troops as part of a 250,000-strong ground force similar to Desert Storm in 1991
  • Smaller special forces units supporting opposition forces within Iraq - a tactic used with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan
  • Intensified air strikes unless a weapons inspection agreement is drawn up

The UK and the US already have aircraft patrolling two no-fly zones within Iraq. They have been carrying out retaliatory air strikes whenever Iraqi air defences have targeted their aircraft.

Backbench motion

A row over the possibility of the UK joining any US attack on Iraq, as part of the war against terrorism, has been building since it was first mooted late last month.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, with US President George Bush in the background
Dick Cheney: Visiting Britain
Ms Short was asked on BBC Radio 4's World this Weekend programme if she would support action against Iraq.

She replied: "It depends what the action is.

"I would absolutely support, if it is possible legally, Saddam Hussein's regime being brought down and the people of Iraq being freed from the suffering he has inflicted."

She added: "I would not support any mass attacks on the poor old Iraqi people that would not do any harm to Saddam Hussein.

"So there is a million things in between."

More than 70 MPs, including many Labour backbenchers, have signed a motion against military action in Iraq.

On Monday, MPs Alice Mahon (Halifax) and Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow, also Father of the House), will deliver a letter to Downing Street warning Mr Blair against joining any action against Iraq.

The delivery will coincide with a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney to Mr Blair, where it is expected that the matter will be discussed.

The BBC's Guto Harri
"There is talk of a full scale invasion force to move in on Iraq"
See also:

08 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair facing revolt over Iraq
07 Mar 02 | Middle East
Washington's case against Saddam
06 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Iraq prompts MP shouting match
03 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair gives Iraq new warning
01 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Britain backs US over Iraq
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