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Defiant Iraq blasts US military buildup

Baghdad/London, Jan. 7 (Reuters): Iraq televised defiant pictures today of thousands of armed volunteers marching near Baghdad as it lashed out at a growing US military buildup in the Gulf that has now drawn in British forces.

Britain called out reserve troops for a possible war against Iraq and authorised the deployment of “significant” extra ships just one day after the US alerted more than 10,000 reservists and stepped up deployment of planes and ships to the Gulf, at least doubling its 60,000 troops already there.

UN inspectors hunting for banned weapons took to the sky for the first time today, flying in helicopters to a site near Syria’s border. Experts also went to a missile plant, cancer research centre, university, cement plant and air base.

But International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei again said weeks of searching for nuclear weapons had not turned up the “smoking gun” of evidence.

“We haven’t seen any smoking gun, but we are also saying that we still have a lot of work to do before we come to a final conclusion,” ElBaradei told CNN.

Iraqi television showed men and women, in military fatigues and with AK-47 assault rifles in hand, marching in the city of Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, a day after President Saddam Hussein said he was prepared to confront any US attack. The armed units are part of the Jerusalem Army, a volunteer force that Iraq says numbers seven million fighters.

In London, defence secretary Geoff Hoon said about 1,500 British reservists would initially be mobilised but others would be called up if necessary.

He said a naval task force already earmarked for the Gulf and Asia-Pacific would be reinforced with “the deployment of a number of additional vessels and units later this month which will represent a significant amphibious capability”.

Last resort

The move came as British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his government’s staunch support of the US and told ambassadors in a speech that UN resolutions should be enforced.

“If the will of the UN is breached then the will should be enforced,” he said, referring to a resolution demanding Baghdad give up its alleged weapons of mass destruction — weapons Baghdad denies possessing.

Elsewhere in Europe, French President Jacques Chirac said war should only be a last resort to deal with the crisis in Iraq and cautioned the US against unilateral action. “The international community should only resort to war as a last resort, once all other options are exhausted,” Chirac told diplomats at a New Year ceremony. Any decision to use force must be agreed by the UN Security Council, he added.

UN arms inspectors are due to report their findings to the Security Council on Thursday and must deliver a major assessment on Iraqi compliance with council resolutions by January 27.

UN Security Council resolution 1441, passed last year, directed Iraq to reveal any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programmes and disarm itself. Failure to cooperate with UN inspectors scouring Iraq for signs of those weapons would mean “serious consequences”, widely interpreted to mean war.

The official newspaper of Iraq’s ruling party declared any US attack would be repulsed with devastating results.

“We are confident that we can repulse any US aggression and force the evil American administration to review its political, military and economic calculations in the region,” the Baath party’s al-Iraq newspaper said.

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