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PREPARING FOR WAR: 3, 000 commandos head for the Gulf; Dispatch of force shows `Britain means business'.

Byline: Gavin Cordon

THE Government last night announced the deployment to the Gulf of a powerful amphibious task force with 3, 000 Royal Marine commandos in a dramatic ratcheting up of the pressure on Saddam Hussein. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said the dispatch of the force - - headed by the carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean - would leave the Iraqi dictator in no doubt that Britain ``means business''. He told the Commons the deployment did not mean that war with Iraq was ``inevitable'', but he said it was ``likely'' that further forces would be sent to the region in the coming weeks. In a further move, Mr Hoon said he was issuing mobilisation orders to hundreds of reservists - including medics, signallers and logistics experts - in the largest call out of the reserve since the 1991 Gulf War. Initially, orders would be issued to secure about 1, 500 reservists, although again Mr Hoon indicated that further call-out notices were likely to be issued in coming weeks. ``It is clearly necessary that we demonstrate to Saddam Hussein and his regime that we mean business, '' Mr Hoon said. ``Whilst we want Saddam 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. ''

In all, Naval Task Group 03 (NTG 03) will comprise 15 surface vessels and one nuclear-powered submarine with a total of 5, 000 Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel. The warships will be headed by the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the helicopter carrier Ocean escorted by the destroyers HMS Liverpool, HMS Edinburgh and HMS York, and the frigate HMS Marlborough.

In addition there will be two minesweepers, HMS Grimsby and HMS Ledbury, three landing vessels Sir Galahad, Sir Tristram and Sir Percivale, and four Royal Fleet Auxiliary support vessels, including the Argus which can be fitted out as a hospital ship. The Royal Marine battle group will comprise 40 and 42 Commandos, with the 3 Commando Brigade headquarters and other supporting elements.

The force represents a significant strengthening of the original NTG 03, headed by the Ark Royal, which was put together initially to take part in international naval exercises this summer in the Far East.

The first ships, including the Ark Royal, will set sail from Portsmouth on Saturday - although, initially the carrier will be heading to Scotland to take on ammunition before heading to the Gulf.

Other ships in NTG 03 will follow in the coming days and weeks. Mr Hoon said that initially they would conduct training exercises in the Mediterranean ``with a view to proceeding to the Gulf region if and as required''. ``The objective is to ensure the readiness of a broad range of military capabilities, '' he said.

``Preparatory steps of this nature are necessary in order to keep military options open. It is likely that we will want to make further deployments in the coming weeks for this same purpose. '' Tony Blair, meanwhile, underlined his determination to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with US President George Bush as America's ``closest ally'' in the current crisis over Iraq.

He said that if Britain wanted to influence the US over issues like climate change, Third World poverty or the Middle East, it had to back America when it came to dealing with weapons of mass destruction(WMD) or terrorism. ``I would never commit British troops to a war I thought was wrong or unnecessary. But the price of influence is that we do not leave the US to face the tricky issues alone, '' he told a conference of British ambassadors in London. ``Unless the world takes a stand on this issue of WMD and sends out a clear signal, we will rue the consequences of our weakness. '' The Conservatives accused Mr Hoon of disguising the full extent of the military commitment because of ``splits and divisions'' within the Cabinet and the Labour Party. Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said: ``They have been very anxious to play down the scale of this deployment. '' He called on Mr Hoon to disclose which Army units had been ear-marked for operations against Iraq and complained `` the hour is already very late'' if Britain was to deploy armoured units at the outset of any US-led military attack.

Earlier, French President Jacques Chirac issued his strongest signal yet that France would contribute troops to any operation against Iraq. ``To be prepared is at the heart of the soldier's job, '' he said in his annual New Year's message to the French armed forces.

``Particularly, we have to be attentive to the way in which United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 (on weapons inspections) is applied by Iraq. ''

CAPTION(S):

Q READY FOR ACTION: Soldiers at the Army Infantry Training School in Catterick, North Yorkshire, wearing NBC protection while training; yesterday. These recruits are dispersed to regiments throughout the Army on completion of their training. Picture: JOHN GILES; Q IT'S A GAS: Paul Brady at Denbigh Army Surplus with the much-in-demand gas masks Picture: STACEY ROBERTS
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 8, 2003
Words:835
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