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Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 14:27 GMT
Navy taskforce to set sail
HMS Ark Royal sailing in to Portsmouth
No decisions taken on military action, says Mr Hoon
The aircraft carrier Ark Royal is to lead a naval taskforce sailing towards the Gulf next month, on their way to "long-planned" exercises in the Indian Ocean.

The Ministry of Defence said that contingency plans were in place to divert the vessels for war with Iraq if necessary.

We do not require the specific agreement of the Security Council

Geoff Hoon
A first order for a ship to carry military supplies to the Gulf has also been placed by the MoD.

The news came after defence secretary Geoff Hoon said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that war with Iraq was not "imminent or inevitable".

Mr Hoon, who is to make a statement to MPs on war planning later on Wednesday, also said the approval of the UN Security Council and the UK Parliament was not required before military action was taken against Saddam Hussein.

Contingency plans

Ministry of Defence officials told BBC News Online the taskforce would be taking part in a long-planned exercise, called Operation Flying Fish, which will culminate in Singapore and Malaysia in June.

A spokeswoman said the taskforce had to "pass through" the Gulf but would not be taking part in any exercises in the region.

"There are contingency plans, but... until any decision has been made the task group will be heading for Asia-Pacific.

Geoff Hoon
Saddam Hussein should 'peacefully disarm', says Mr Hoon
"At this point it is not heading for the Gulf. It could head for the Gulf."

Meanwhile, Mr Hoon told the BBC that while MPs could expect some debate on the issue it might not be about specific military action because "we would not necessarily want to signal the timing or the date of any such military action in advance".

Hiring ships

A substantial number of left-wing Labour MPs have been pushing for a vote on the issue before troops are deployed.

The news of the taskforce's schedule came the day after MoD disclosed that ships were being hired to take any troops needed to the Gulf.

A shipping source told Reuters that the MoD placed its first order on Wednesday for a large merchant ship to carry heavy armour and military supplies to the Gulf ahead of a possible strike on Iraq.

The UK is also reported to have requested two more vessels for military deployment, following similar moves by the US.

Dr Hamid Bayati, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
Iraqi politicians are preparing a post-Saddam future
An MoD spokesman declined to go into detail, but confirmed that a tender for ships was in the open market.

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.

But officials stressed that the moves were only contingency plans - no troops had yet been deployed, nor had the size of any force been decided.

Mr Hoon echoed this by emphasising "that no decision has been taken to launch military action".

Peaceful route

But he said it was "important that members of the Security Council, including the United Kingdom, are in a position to take military action should that be necessary".

However, when he was asked if the UK required Security Council agreement to launch a military strike, Mr Hoon replied: "We do not require the specific agreement of the Security Council."

Asked if that would mean the US and UK would take unilateral action, he said: "It is always the prerogative of individual members of the Security Council to take such decisions."

The defence secretary told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the government's preferred position was "that we should not have to resort to military action", that there should be a "peaceful route to disarmament and that's a matter for Saddam Hussein to decide".

'War inevitable'

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.

Syrian 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.

The Syrian leader also claimed America's real interest in Iraq was oil.

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17 Dec 02 | Politics
05 Aug 02 | UK
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