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U.S. general, British defense chief to meet for war planning in Qatar

DOHA, QATAR—U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of allied forces in a possible invasion of Iraq, is scheduled to meet with British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon here on Wednesday in what could be a sign that final preparations are under way for war against Saddam Hussein.

Yet Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a trip to Asia, indicated that Washington would not move against Iraq before March 7, when United Nations weapons inspectors are expected to issue another report about their efforts to disarm Iraq.

Speaking in Tokyo before he flew to Beijing on Sunday, Powell said after the report is issued the United Nations would have to decide on a new resolution that would demand Iraq disarm or face military action.

"Time is drawing to a close when the Security Council must show its relevance by insisting that Iraq disarm or that Iraq be disarmed by a coalition of forces that will do it," Powell said.

In Britain, meanwhile, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said that a draft resolution to authorize force against Iraq would come to a vote by mid-March.

As Britain and the United States seem to be preparing for war, France was still calling for more time to let U.N. arms inspectors do their work in Iraq.

But on Sunday France added its voice to those demanding that Iraq destroy the al Samoud 2 missiles by March 1, or face action from the U.N. Security Council.

"It is necessary for Iraq to act and meet its obligations, in this case the destruction of these prohibited missiles," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Le Figaro newspaper

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has demanded that Iraq destroy the missiles, which he says exceed the 93-mile limit that the U.N. set after the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq has said it was seriously considering the demand.

Amid the diplomatic maneuverings, Franks and Hoon are expected to begin discussions Wednesday on how American and British forces would cooperate in a war against Iraq. Hoon is the equivalent of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Britain is the United States' staunchest ally in the standoff with Iraq. Despite mounting criticism in London, Blair is planning to send 40,000 British troops to the Gulf, the nation's largest military commitment in two decades.

Military officials did not disclose when Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, would arrive at the As Sayliyah base in Qatar, and they would not say how long he would remain in the region.

The As Sayliyah base, in the Arabian Desert on the outskirts of Qatar's capital, would serve as headquarters for U.S. Central Command in the event of war.

For months, commanders, war planners and hundreds of support troops from the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada have been arriving at As Sayliyah or the nearby Al Udeid air base.


The meeting between Franks and Hoon would be the highlight of the British secretary's tour of allies in the Gulf States, scheduled to begin Monday.

Hoon is also expected to visit Kuwait, where most American and British troops are massed for a possible invasion.

The British privately are urging U.S. officials to give Saddam a final "act or be defeated" deadline of mid-March before a second United Nations resolution is debated, according to British press reports.

The resolution is to be sponsored by both the United States and United Kingdom. It would state that the Iraqi dictator is in "material breach" of U.N. resolution 1441 and would call on him to comply fully with U.N. weapons inspectors or face "serious consequences," the reports said.

Britain's commitment to an Iraqi invasion includes at least 17 navy ships, 120 Challenger tanks and an armored infantry brigade with 100 armored personnel carriers to a war in Iraq. Roughly half the troops have already landed in the Gulf.


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