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EDITIONS
 Friday, 24 January, 2003, 16:49 GMT
Benn primed for Iraq peace trip
Tony Benn
Tony Benn met Saddam in 1990 before the Gulf War
Former Labour MP Tony Benn is hoping to meet Saddam Hussein on a visit to Baghdad next week.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz has told Mr Benn he might be granted an interview like the one he had with the dictator in the run-up to the Gulf War.

News of Mr Benn's trip followed reports that Iraq was preparing its troops for a possible chemical war.

Downing Street said it could not confirm the reports but said the news came as "no surprise".

'Good sign'

Mr Benn's announcement came as the US said it was "unacceptable" for Iraq to refuse to grant United weapons inspectors interviews with its key scientists.

The veteran former minister said: "The purpose is to explore the prospects for peace.

"That is why I went in 1990 and it is important now when you hear America speaking about weeks, not months.

Tam Dalyell, Labour MP
Dalyell: Documents could be propaganda
"We hear President Bush and Tony Blair every day but we don't hear from Saddam Hussein.

"It is a good sign that he may be willing to meet me."

Iraqi documents obtained by BBC Radio 4's Today programme suggest Baghdad is equipping key military units with protection against chemical weapons.

Splits emerging?

Tony Blair's official spokesman said Mr Blair's spokesman said: "What is emerging is a clear pattern which suggests not only that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction but that he is also continuing to try and conceal it.

"Therefore, he is not complying with UN resolution 1441 because he is not proactively engaging with the weapons inspectors to reveal what weapons of mass destruction he has he has and help them disarm them."

There are growing signs of increasing opposition within the United Nations Security Council to possible war - but Number 10 is urging people "not to jump to conclusions".

Troops having vaccines in the Gulf War
Troops are not signing vaccine disclaimers, say ministers
The spokesman was asked whether the prime minister was less confident of getting a second UN resolution backing military action.

He said everybody should wait to see what happened when the UN weapons inspectors reported on Monday.

The reports that Iraq could be preparing to use chemical weapons if it comes under attack stem from papers smuggled out by Iraqi opposition figures.

But anti-war Labour MP Tam Dalyell warned that the documents could be propaganda.

Or Iraq might be trying to protect its troops against a chemical attack, he argued.

Human shield

A group of 100 UK peace protesters were preparing on Friday to travel by bus to Iraq, drumming up anti-war support on route.

The group says it is prepared to act as a "human shield" should war start when it is in Iraq.

Suggestions of chemical warfare will stoke fears for British troops heading towards the Gulf.

On Friday, a defence minister rejected claims that troops had been asked to sign disclaimers over vaccines being offered to the military.

Anna Vizor, of St Edmunds, Suffolk, said her husband, who is in the RAF, had rejected offers of various jabs, including anthrax.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Ms Vizor said: "He was told if he wanted to have these jabs, he had to sign a disclaimer saying that if he was ill in the future, he couldn't claim any compensation."

'No vaccine disclaimer'

Defence Minister Lewis Moonie told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "They are not being asked to sign waivers. Categorically not. It is the exact opposite."

Dr Moonie continued: "When somebody refuses a vaccination - not when they take it - a record is kept, signed by the doctor and the person, saying that they understand that they have been offered the vaccination and have refused it.

"We have very good public health reasons for wanting our people to take all the vaccinations, not just anthrax.

"That's why we do try to put pressure on them, but it is a voluntary act."

Earlier, former Tory leadership contender Kenneth Clarke said he was "not persuaded" about the case for war with Iraq.

Mr Clarke said he was worried Washington had taken the decision to go to war months ago.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  Tory MP Kenneth Clarke speaking on Question Time
"I'm not persuaded that there's sufficient cause for going to war"
  The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"It's very difficult to assess...whether we should believe it"
  The BBC's Rageh Omaar
"So far the inspectors haven't come up with any smoking gun"

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See also:

24 Jan 03 | Politics
23 Jan 03 | Middle East
22 Jan 03 | Politics
23 Jan 03 | Americas
21 Jan 03 | Politics
21 Jan 03 | Middle East
21 Jan 03 | Politics
22 Jan 03 | Europe
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