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U.S., Britain step up pressure on Saddam to reveal weapons

WASHINGTON—The United States and Britain on Tuesday stepped up the military pressure on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to reveal Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs to U.N. inspectors.

U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who would direct any operation to oust Saddam, has begun dispatching his staff to the U.S. Central Command's heavily protected forward headquarters in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where they would coordinate an invasion, American defense officials announced.

Britain ordered a 16-vessel Royal Navy task force carrying aircraft, helicopters and some 3,000 commandos to head toward the Persian Gulf. It also began mobilizing hundreds of reservists.

The moves are part of an accelerated flow of U.S. and British forces that is intended to compel Saddam to disclose the chemical, biological and nuclear warfare programs that Washington and London say he is hiding. Iraq contends it has no such programs.

"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," British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons, the lower chamber of Parliament.

With the number of U.S. personnel in the Persian Gulf due to double to more than 100,000 over the next four weeks, and about 100,000 more American ground troops awaiting deployment orders, the momentum appears to be building toward war.

Up to 30,000 British troops are expected to participate in any invasion, along with smaller numbers of forces from other countries, including Australia.

President Bush warned Tuesday that "for the sake of peace, Saddam Hussein must disarm himself of all weapons of mass destruction, and prove that he has done so."

"Should he choose the other course, in the name of peace the United States will lead a coalition of the willing to disarm the Iraqi regime of weapons of mass destruction and free the Iraqi people," Bush said in a speech in Chicago.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Bush's "last choice is the use of military force," and that the accelerating military buildup was a prudent means of giving the president the option of invading if other measures failed.

"The first choice would be that Saddam Hussein would pick up and leave the country tonight, or he decides suddenly to turn over a new leaf and cooperate with the U.N. and disgorge all of his capabilities," Rumsfeld said.

The U.N. inspectors, who returned to Iraq in November after an absence of nearly four years, have yet to find solid evidence that Saddam is developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in breach of the terms that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But Rumsfeld said, "There is no doubt in my mind that they currently have chemical and biological weapons."

Military officials said members of Franks' staff began moving last week from their base in Tampa, Fla., to their forward headquarters at Camp As Sayliyah outside Doha, the capital of Qatar.

"This is something that is going to be happening for a while now," said Lt. Col. Ray Shepard, a Central Command spokesman. "We do have a large number of folks who have deployed in the area," and the headquarters staff is required "to provide them support and to support the diplomacy."

Shepard declined to say how many members of Franks' staff are going to Qatar.

Last month, the four-star general and about 600 staff members—as well as British and Australian officers—ran the super-secret field headquarters through its paces in a computer exercise that reportedly simulated an invasion of Iraq.

The $58 million facility is made up of shelters and trailers that are set up in climate-controlled warehouses. They are outfitted with computers and other advanced gear that allow Franks and his staff to talk directly with his air, sea and land commanders and with his superiors in Washington.

They also can access the latest intelligence information, including real-time battlefield pictures transmitted by surveillance aircraft and spy satellites.

In London, Hoon told the House of Commons that the Royal Navy task force would comprise an aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and 15 other vessels, including a frigate, three destroyers, a submarine and a helicopter carrier.

Some 1,500 Royal Marine commandos, some of Britain's most elite special forces, would go with the task force, Hoon said. He said some 1,500 reservists were being mobilized and "we will issue further notices as appropriate."

His statement came a day after the British Defense Ministry announced that a separate six-ship task force would stop in the Persian Gulf before proceeding to an exercise in Southeast Asia.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.