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Iraq deployment under way as MoD charters troop ships for Gulf (GUARDIAN UK) Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill 12/18/02) Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,861919,00.html
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The first preparations for a major British deployment for war against Iraq were revealed yesterday as defence officials disclosed that ships were being chartered to carry troops and heavy armour to the Gulf.
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The move is among measures already undertaken by the Ministry of Defence but disclosed only yesterday. They include urgent orders for chemical and biological warfare protection kits and for field hospitals, modifying tanks and heavy guns for desert conditions, putting thousands of troops on standby, and warning reservists they will soon be needed.
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Defence officials insisted the deployment of a substantial British force did not mean a decision had been made to attack Iraq. "We are not now committed to the use of force," they said. What they called the "realistic threat of the use of force" would also have a coercive effect, putting a psychological squeeze on the Iraqi regime, they said.
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Even if Saddam Hussein´s government "imploded naturally" as they put it - an outcome many British and US military commanders would like to see - Iraq would still require a "stabilisation force".
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The disclosure of detailed preparations to deploy a force, estimated to total up to 20,000 personnel from all three services, ends months of speculation about the government´s intentions.
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Ministers have been under pressure for weeks from military chiefs to give political and financial backing to essential measures needed to prepare the British force.
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The deployment of British troops to the Gulf "could come at any time", a defence official said. It is likely to begin next month. In theory, the trigger for military action could be pulled tomorrow if the UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was to inform the security council that Iraq is in material breach of the UN resolution.
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Mr Blix is to provide a preliminary assessment of the 12,000-page Iraqi weapons declaration. The US has said the declaration is badly flawed but Mr Blix is to take a more relaxed view. He will say he has questions for Iraq about mustard gas shells missing from the declaration and discrepancies between the various pages, but does not regard these as constituting a a material breach. He is to provide a more detailed assessment next month.
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Key information about Iraq´s weapons programme could be provided by defectors. It emerged yesterday that three high-ranking Iraqi military officers have defected in Arbil, in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, and handed themselves over to Turkey.
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The MoD is expected today to begin chartering commercial ships, including an unspecified number of roll on/roll off ferries at a cost of up to about £14,000 a day each. "We are maintaining our options. We do not know whether a conflict will be necessary or what type of conflict there would be," a senior defence source said.
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The US is believed to have asked Britain for special forces, Royal Marine commandos, RAF air-to-air refuelling tankers, and minesweepers.
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Defence officials made clear yesterday that Britain´s contribution would include Challenger 2 main battle tanks which performed disastrously in an exercise in Oman last year.
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Fixing new air filters and skirts on 250 tanks - the most Britain is likely to deploy - would cost £90m. AS90 self-propelled howitzers which broke down in the Oman exercise are being modified, and the army is investing in a new secure communications system.
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Up to 10,000 reservists may be needed, including medical staff. The potential effect on the NHS was being discussed with the Department of Health, Lord Bach, the arms procurement minister, told peers.
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A naval task force, due to leave for the Far East next month on a pre- planned exercise, could be in the Gulf area by the end of January. Led by the aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, it includes at least one submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
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The helicopter and Royal Marine commando carrier, HMS Ocean, should be ready for operations early in the new year.
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Defence officials said yesterday the very hot weather in Iraq after March would have an effect on tactics and equipment. But they said it would not be a "crucial factor". (Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002 12/18/02)
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