The United States has requested British troops to join a possible war on Iraq, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Wednesday.
The Bush administration has disclosed that U.S. ambassadors in 50 countries have been told to solicit support from allies for personnel and equipment to assist American forces in the war on terrorism and, possibly, on Iraq. A senior administration official said the preliminary surveys are meant to formalize ad-hoc offers of support made to Washington over recent months.
"We have had a request for forces from the United States, but no decision has been taken on that and it does seem to me appropriate that I should set out in more detail our thinking on Monday in the parliamentary debate," Hoon said at a news conference.
British lawmakers are scheduled to debate the Iraq crisis next week in the House of Commons. Many are wary of joining U.S.-led military action to disarm Saddam Hussein.
On Nov. 7, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on Iraq to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors searching for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It threatens the country with unspecified "serious consequences" if it fails to disarm.
The United States has drawn up plans to invade Iraq with up to 250,000 troops should Saddam be judged to have breached the resolution.
A Ministry of Defense spokesman refused to give details of talks between Britain and the United States or to discuss the number of British troops that had been requested. He said the government was engaged in "contingency planning" for military action.
"It's no great secret that we have been for several weeks in planning for military action," he said on condition of anonymity. "The U.K. has been making contingency plans in case, sadly, it is required."
Hoon said the Security Council should consider whether Iraqi attacks on British and American warplanes patrolling the country's "no-fly zone" this week were a breach of the Security Council resolution.
U.S. officials have said Iraqi anti-aircraft fire appears violate the resolution, but U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has disagreed with that interpretation.
The 15-member council has never specifically approved the flights over northern and southern Iraq, which Baghdad considers violations of its sovereignty.
"It's clearly relevant that his forces should attack our forces carrying out humanitarian tasks in the no-fly zone," Hoon said.
"And certainly I agree that it is important that we recognize that this is an aggressive, belligerent state as far as our aircraft are concerned and that will go to be part of the picture the Security Council discusses but it would be a matter for the Security Council to discuss once all the evidence had been amassed."