Thousands of Reservists Called Up as Britain Prepares for War


By Jane Merrick and Gavin Cordon

January 7, 2003

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was today announcing the deployment of thousands of troops to the Gulf ahead of a possible war on Iraq.

In a statement to the House of Commons Mr Hoon was announcing the call up of several thousand reservists as plans for military action move up a gear. The announcement was being made as Tony Blair issued a bleak warning of the dangers of failing to tackle Iraq's arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

In a speech to British ambassadors gathered in London, the Prime Minister said that the world will "rue the consequences of our weakness" unless Saddam Hussein is disarmed. And he was underlining his determination to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President George Bush as America's closest ally in the current stand-off with Baghdad.

His comments follow the disclosure yesterday that a Royal Navy task force, headed by the carrier HMS Ark Royal, will set sail on Saturday on a deployment which will take it into the Gulf, further ratcheting up the pressure on Saddam.

In his closing address to the two-day ambassadors' conference, Mr Blair warned that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pose a direct threat to British security.

It was "only a matter of time" before terrorists were able to get their hands on WMD, he was saying, so that when a regime such as Iraq refused international demands to disarm that regime was threatening the UK. "Unless the world takes a stand on this issue of WMD, we will rue the consequences of our weakness," he said.

His comments follow Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's warning yesterday that "rogue regimes" such as Iraq were the most likely source of WMD technology for terrorist groups like al Qa'ida.

Mr Blair will also use his speech to mount a robust defence of the transatlantic alliance with the US while condemning anti-Americanism. "It is massively in our national interest to remain the closest ally of the US," he was expected to say.

While he was to say that he would never commit British troops to a war he believed was wrong or unnecessary, the Prime Minister was emphasising that "the price of British influence" was not leaving the US to deal with issues like WMD or terrorism alone. Mr Blair was saying that he wants to use the alliance to influence the Americans to continue to "broaden their agenda".

He was to acknowledge that critics of the US wanted it to do more on issues like the Middle East, Third World poverty and global warming. However, he was to stress that he believes the US decision to go down the "UN route" on Iraq is an important symbol of its desire to work with other nations. The Prime Minister was also to reject claims that Britain's position in the European Union weakened its ties with the US, arguing instead that the two roles reinforced each other.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "War is neither imminent nor is it inevitable." Lord Irvine also rejected suggestions that Mr Blair's New Year message was gloomy: "Our Prime Minister has conducted himself with great skill and he is widely credited with the United Nations route being gone down now as it is. "Of course we live in dangerous times, but there is nothing to be gloomy about and there is much to be proud of," Lord Irvine said.

Asked if there was a real chance of avoiding conflict with Iraq, Lord Irvine said: "There must be. It could be achieved by two means. One, Iraq voluntarily disarming. Another possibility is Saddam Hussein standing down. "But I think sufficient unto the day."

Major General Patrick Cordingly, the commander of Britain's initial deployment in the last Gulf War, said he believed the case for war had not yet been made. He said he expected today's deployment would be small but added "clearly something is going to follow on afterwards". Maj Gen Cordingly told Today: "I and the rest of the British public clearly don't think the case yet has been made.

"One can only assume that the Government knows something that they can't tell us about, and I hope that's so, if we do go into the attack. "But clearly at the moment I don't think there is a case."

Leader of the Commons Robin Cook told Today: "I think Jack Straw's worked extremely hard and I greatly respect the efforts that he's put in to make sure that this crisis is handled squarely within the United Nations and the Security Council and continues to be so. "I think the strategy has been successful in getting it into the hands of the United Nations, we must now see what the inspectors see there."

Whether a second resolution would be required would depend on what chief inspector Hans Blix reported to the Security Council on 27 January, Mr Cook said. "It is plainly the case that no Government can commit British troops if it does not have support for that within the British House of Commons.

"The Government has no difficulty of a substantive motion on the commitment of troops at the appropriate time. "Of course any Government must reserve the right to commit forces without necessarily giving your opponent notice that they were going to be committed. "But that does not mean that we would not want to make sure we carry the House of Commons with us. "It would obviously have to be after any decision taken by the Government and then at the appropriate time. "There can be no question of any action being taken if the House of Commons is not going to support it."

Asked whether he recognised there was anxiety among the British public and MPs about war, Mr Cook said: "I don't think that anybody, and that includes all members of the Government, view this situation with anything other than a very grave concern and taking it very seriously.

"But let's not lose sight of why it is a matter of grave concern. It is because in Saddam Hussein we have somebody who has already made it perfectly plain he wants to dominate his region by military might and as part of that has always retained ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction."

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