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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 06:55 GMT
Britain steps up war preparations
HMS Ark Royal sailing in to Portsmouth
No decisions taken on military action, says Mr Hoon
Britain is stepping up preparations for a possible war with Iraq as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw accused Iraq of lying about its weapons programmes.

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.

It seems that Saddam Hussein has decided to continue the pretence that Iraq has had no WND programme

Jack Straw
Contingency plans are in place to divert the vessels for war with Iraq if necessary, according to the Ministry of Defence.

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

The threat of war grew stronger as Tony Blair, Mr Straw and US President George W Bush expressed doubts about Saddam Hussein's declaration on Iraq's weapons programmes.

But a shortage of merchant ships and loss of maritime skills could undermine Britain's role in any military action against Iraq, according to the union Numast.

BBC correspondent Stephen Cape said the MoD may have to use foreign-flagged or foreign crewed ships which would pose a security risk.

Since the Falklands War the number of 500 gross tonne ships has dropped by 700, the union said.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs the government would consider sending extra naval resources to the Gulf in the new year if needed.

But BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan said any deployment would not start for at least another month and would appear to be small.

"When Britain last sent an armoured brigade to the Gulf, in 1990, it hired in a matter of days 36 ships. This time, so far, we're hiring three."

War 'not imminent'

Mr Hoon added a standby fleet of ships was being built-up, orders of specialised desert equipment being speeded up and some troop units were being put on shorter notice to move.

Geoff Hoon
Saddam Hussein should 'peacefully disarm', says Mr Hoon
"I want to emphasise once more that these are contingency preparations aimed at increasing the readiness of a range of options," he told the Commons.

Mr Hoon stressed war with Iraq was not "imminent or inevitable", but warned approval from the UN Security Council and the UK Parliament was not required before military action was taken against Saddam Hussein.

The UK's most senior military chief said troops were frustrated they did not know what they would be doing.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce said: "Obviously it is frustrating in the sense that you always want to know exactly where you are heading so you can actually do proper planning for it.

A "menu of packages" was being put together, said the chief of the defence staff.

The "long planned" exercise in the Indian Ocean, Operation Flying Fish, will culminate in Singapore and Malaysia in June.

MoD officials told BBC News Online: "It is not heading for the Gulf. It could head for the Gulf."

Mr Blair said if Saddam Hussein breached the UN Security Council resolution which required him to detail his weapons of mass destruction "we should agree to take action" against Iraq.

Dr Hamid Bayati, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
Iraqi politicians are preparing a post-Saddam future
Mr Blair said he would hold a Commons vote on any deployment to Iraq, but only if it would not "endanger or imperil our troops".

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

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw dismissed as an "obvious falsehood" claims by Saddam Hussein that Iraq abandoned producing weapons of mass destruction long ago.

'Confusion'

Mr Straw said there were "obvious omissions" from Iraq's huge dossier on its weapons programmes.

The White House said President Bush was also "concerned" at what was missing.

Downing Street said Mr Straw was only giving an "initial impression" and the formal response to Iraq's 12,000 page declaration would be given after Christmas.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram said Mr Straw and the prime minister appeared to be saying different things.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Paul Adams
"Some deployments are going ahead as planned"
  Geoff Hoon MP, Defence Secretary
"Saddam Hussein has been given every opportunity to disarm"

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See also:

15 Dec 02 | Middle East
17 Dec 02 | Politics
05 Aug 02 | UK
18 Dec 02 | Americas
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