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 Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 20:41 GMT
UK gearing up for Iraq war
Missile plant in Taji, Iraq
The MoD remains hopeful for a diplomatic solution
The UK is starting to get ready for possible war against Iraq, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced.

Officials said plans to provide equipment for a campaign had begun, and ships were being hired to take any troops needed to the Gulf.

You cannot operate on the basis of beam me over Scotty with heavy tanks

Bruce George
Commons defence committee
But the ministry stressed the moves were only contingency plans - no troops had yet been deployed, nor had the size of any force been decided.

The news came as Iraqi opposition groups meeting in London agreed on the make-up of a committee that could form the basis for a new government in Baghdad.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has also added to speculation when he said there were "problems" with Iraq's declaration about its weapons programmes.

Threat of force

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has refused to be drawn on this and said the British Government would await a full report from UN inspectors.

But President Assad, who met Mr Blair on Monday, used a speech in London to say he thought war was now inevitable.

A conflict would widen the gap between the West and the Arab world and encourage more terrorism, warned President Assad.

Dr Hamid Bayati, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
Iraqi politicians are preparing a post-Saddam future
The Syrian leader also claimed America's real interest in Iraq was oil.

At the MoD, officials insisted war was neither "imminent nor inevitable" and said diplomatic efforts were still being pursued to resolve the Iraq crisis.

The shape of any military operation had not been decided, they said.

But reservists and their employers were being contacted to make sure they have no objections to being called up if necessary.

Some regular troop units being put on notice so they could move quickly if required.

Tanks were also being prepared for desert conditions, with their filters and fans to be changed so they could cope with sand.

Every eventuality

An official explained: "We are preparing in a military sense so that the threat of military force is there to support the idea that compliance is a good idea.

"But behind that is preparation for actual use of force if that should prove necessary."

It is understood military planners are preparing for every possible eventuality, from sending a light force to deploying large numbers of troops.
US infantry in Kuwaiti desert, near Iraq border
US forces are on exercise in Kuwait

Even if the Iraqi regime were to "implode", a stabilisation force might still be needed.

The Sun newspaper on Tuesday claimed a huge force of 300,000 Allied troops is to be sent to topple Saddam Hussein and that the MoD had begun the build-up for war.

Officials called that report "purely speculative" and the numbers appear to point to the maximum possible Allied troops which could be deployed.

Anti-war Labour MP Alice Mahon doubted no decisions about war had been made.

"Our prime minister, Tony Blair, has already given his blessing to George Bush to go ahead with this war," she told BBC Two's Westminster Live.

Mrs Mahon argued Parliament had been "badly deceived" in the last debate on Iraq and MPs would not get another chance to vote on whether to go to war.

Bruce George, chairman of the Commons defence select committee, countered that the government had begun a wide debate but had to make key preparations.

"You cannot operate on the basis of 'beam me over Scotty' with heavy tanks and other equipment. You have to take prudent precautions."

The Conservatives said the MoD briefing had caused confusion and urged ministers to make a statement about the preparations in Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats, who are more sceptical about war, also said MPs should be kept informed and argued Parliament should have the final say on whether to take military action.

In London, Iraqi opposition leaders have reached agreement after four days of heated talks.

Their final declaration called for a democratic and federal Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein.

There will be 65 members on the new committee - a sign of the need to accommodate a large number of diverse opinions.

  The BBC's Paul Adams
"Many on leave over Christmas are now effectively on standby"
  Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
"No decision has been taken for military action"

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See also:

17 Dec 02 | Middle East
16 Dec 02 | Middle East
16 Dec 02 | Politics
16 Dec 02 | Middle East
08 Dec 02 | Middle East
25 Sep 02 | Conflict with Iraq
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