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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
UK 'close to Iraq decision'
British tank in desert
Tanks would have to be modified for the desert
The UK Government is close to making a decision about deploying troops to the Middle East for possible war against Iraq.

Despite Downing Street's insistence that no decision has been made, Whitehall sources say an announcement could be made by the end of the month.

The news came as US President George Bush renewed his warnings to Saddam Hussein, and the UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw began a tour of Arab states in an attempt to gain support for any military action against Iraq.

Open in new window : Attack options
Possible strategies for ousting Saddam

After his talks with Mr Straw, Egypt's foreign minister warned against "rewriting the rules in the middle of the game", putting weapons inspections as the priority for the UN.

The BBC's Andrew Gilligan says sources have suggested it is increasingly likely that some UK armoured vehicles or tanks could be deployed in the Gulf region.

If tanks are to be used, it will take at least three months to transport them to Kuwait, their likely starting point, and to modify them for desert conditions.

The UK's main groups of Challenger Two battle tanks - the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade - are stationed in Germany.

President Mubarak
Straw has met Egypt's President Mubarak
They are likely to need to be specially altered for desert conditions, with special filters and rubber "skirts" to keep out the sand and raised exhausts.

The defence sources say they hope it would not be necessary to destroy the Iraqi army.

They claim there is a chance that a massive show of force by the United States and the UK could spark the overthrow of Saddam Hussein from within Iraq.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said it might be prudent to put troops in position.

But forces should not be committed to conflict unless action was sanctioned by Parliament, said Mr Campbell.

Diplomatic cornerstone

The news comes to light hours after US President Bush delivered his latest warning to Saddam Hussein.

In a televised speech, Mr Bush said time was running out for the Iraqi leader and that he must disarm Iraq or face a coalition led by the US.

The UK and US are trying to convince members of the UN Security Council to support a tough resolution threatening military force if Baghdad backs out of its pledge to allow arms inspections.

Jack Straw
Straw says Iraq's weapons are the key focus
So far, they have yet to win over France, Russia and China - the other veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-state Security Council.

Inspectors focus

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in Paris on Monday before starting a four-day tour of the Middle East, stressed that effective diplomacy was the cornerstone in dealing with Iraq.

But he added that it must be backed by the threat of force.

The French said they would not rule out the use of military intervention if the inspections fail, but warned that inspectors must return to Iraq first.

Peace process

Mr Straw, who met Egypt's President Mubarak, has faced increasing Arab hostility to a second US-led Gulf war.

As talks over a new resolution continued, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said: "Rewriting the rules in the middle of the game may not be the best solution."

Current weapons inspections rules, which Mr Straw has called defective, had yielded results in the past, argued Mr Maher.

Asked whether Egypt would back using force against Iraq, Mr Maher said he did not believe in "predicting catastrophes before they happen".

Mr Straw himself said his meetings in Egypt showed it agreed with the UK on the need "if at all possible, to have this resolved by peaceful means".

As he continues his diplomatic offensive, Mr Straw is stressing the UK's commitment to new efforts for Middle East peace.

Later, he met King Abdullah of Jordan.

Palace sources were quoted by the AFP news agency as saying the king had told Mr Straw that Iraq's latest offer on weapons inspections should save the region from a new war.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's James Robbins
"What most Arab nations see is the United States dead-set on war"

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See also:

08 Oct 02 | Politics
08 Oct 02 | Americas
13 Sep 02 | UK

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