| US President George W. Bush (top) with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Havel in Prague. (AFP)
London, Nov. 20 (Reuters): The British government said today it had received a request from Washington for troops to take part in a possible Iraqi military campaign.
Speaking as US President George W. Bush urged Nato allies in Europe to join a “coalition of the willing” to attack Iraq if it defied UN weapons inspectors, defence secretary Geoff Hoon said Britain was prepared to offer a “credible threat”.
But he stressed that did not mean war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was inevitable. Asked if the United States had asked for a contribution of forces to a potential invasion, Hoon told a news conference: “We have had a request for forces from the US, but can I emphasise no decision has been taken on that.”
Hoon said more details would be given to parliament next Monday, when it will hold a debate on Iraq.
In Baghdad, Iraq vowed to meet its first big test under a UN resolution by providing a complete account of its arms programme, and chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said today that Baghdad had pledged full cooperation.
Britain, Washington’s staunch ally, is widely expected to contribute around 15,000 troops to back any US military action against Saddam. But Hoon’s comments were the first confirmation of a formal request for support.
He said despite the diversion of 19,000 staff to cover for a firefighters’ strike, Britain could still pose a serious military threat to Iraq.
“We have always made clear that in order to underpin the effectiveness of the Security Council process there needs to be a credible threat. We are going to provide that,” he said.
But Hoon’s comments were undermined by his own armed forces chief, standing beside him at the news conference, who said he was “extremely concerned” at the impact of the fire strikes.
“Clearly we cannot perform to the full extent of our operating facility while 19,000 people are tied up standing by to do firefighting duties,” chief of staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce said.
Even before the start of weapons inspections called for in a tough UN resolution passed two weeks ago, Washington has said Baghdad is in “material breach” of the resolution by firing on US and British fighter jets overflying Iraq.
That interpretation has raised fears among other Security Council members that the United States could use it as an automatic trigger for war.
British diplomats have said firing against their planes did not constitute a material breach. But Hoon said it would impact on the Security Council’s assessment of Iraqi compliance.
“It is important that we recognise that this is an aggressive, belligerent state as far as our aircraft are concerned,” he said. “That would go to part of the picture that the Security Council would discuss.”
Asked about doubts within British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party at the prospect of war with Iraq, Hoon said politicians could make their views clear at Monday’s debate — where he could spell out plans to call up reserve troops.
“All members of parliament, including those who are members of government, will be thinking through their positions,” Hoon said.
Uday paper banned
The newspaper of President Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday was banned from appearing for a month, an Iraqi information ministry source said today.
The official said Babel, Iraq’s most influential newspaper, was banned because it “violated the instructions of the information ministry.” He gave no further details. The paper did not appear today and the source said the ban would continue for a month.
Babel sniped occasionally at government inefficiency and corruption. It was also the only local newspaper that published Western media reports daily about Iraq and its conflict with the United States.