- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

LONDON Britain yesterday ordered a task force of ships and 3,000 Royal Marines to head toward the Persian Gulf and mobilized 1,500 reserve soldiers in the event of war with Iraq.

France also gave its clearest sign that it would participate in military action if Baghdad does not eliminate its programs for weapons of mass destruction. President Jacques Chirac told French troops to be prepared for deployment.

Tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops already are heading for the Gulf. The contingent is expected to number more than 100,000 by the end of January and 200,000 by the end of February. The eventual fighting force could swell to about half the 550,000 U.S. troops amassed in the 1991 Gulf war.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the mobilization of British reserves during a speech to the House of Commons. The initial call-up was for 1,500 soldiers, with more to come, he said.

"Whilst we want Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily, it is evident that we will not achieve this unless we continue to present him with a clear and credible threat of force," Mr. Hoon told lawmakers.

He also said that a "significant" force of Royal Navy vessels and Royal Marines would be sent to the Mediterranean to train for possible action in the Gulf. A British Ministry of Defense official said about 3,000 Marines would be aboard the ships, which include an aircraft carrier and three destroyers.

In Washington, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the U.S. military was deploying "to provide the president as much flexibility as possible," should he decide to wage war.

Officials also said that a command post at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar is being readied for U.S. battle planners in case President Bush decides military force is needed.

Jim Wilkinson, the Central Command director of strategic communications, confirmed the decision but declined to provide details on when the planners would arrive or in what numbers.

The United States has threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not give up weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Weapons inspectors from the United Nations resumed their work in Iraq two months ago after a four-year absence.

Inspectors yesterday used helicopters for the first time in their search for banned weapons, with three choppers lifting off from a Baghdad military base to conduct an aerial survey. The aircraft will make it easier for inspectors to arrive without warning at potential weapons sites.

Inspectors on the ground visited at least six sites, including a factory producing Iraq's al-Samood missiles, a Baghdad cancer research center and a cement factory.

In Baghdad, Iraq's oil minister retired yesterday after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 and was replaced by a former diplomat and close associate of President Saddam Hussein, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

Lt. Gen. Amer Mohammed Rashid was succeeded by Sameer Abdul-Aziz al-Najim, a member of the ruling Ba'ath party's regional command, who has a long association with Saddam and served as Iraq's ambassador to Egypt, Turkey, Spain and Russia.

Britain has been Washington's strongest ally against Iraq, while France has been more reluctant, insisting that the United States cannot start military action without U.N. support.

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