LONDON – Defense officials on Saturday refused to confirm newspaper reports that Britain soon will send thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf to increase the pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The Ministry of Defense would not confirm reports in The Daily Telegraph and Chicago Tribune that Britain would order up to 20,000 troops to the Gulf next week.
A ministry spokeswoman said the government was making "contingency plans" for war, but no decision had been taken on military action. However, she said the government "can't rule out the possibility of a further statement next week."
British officials and politicians return to work next week after the Christmas and New Year's break, and likely will increase both military and diplomatic pressure on Iraq.
Prime Minister Tony Blair will fly home in the next few days from a family holiday in Egypt, and lawmakers return Tuesday to the House of Commons. On Monday and Tuesday, British ambassadors from around the world will meet in London to discuss Iraq and other issues.
The United States — backed by Britain — has threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not voluntarily give up its banned nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iraq maintains it has no banned weapons.
Britain announced in November that six Royal Navy vessels, including the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and a nuclear submarine, will head for the Gulf this month en route to a long-planned exercise in Southeast Asia.
The Daily Telegraph reported Saturday that the government would announce next week it was sending 20,000 troops to the region and calling up 7,000 military reservists. The Times also said the government would call up thousands of reservists. Neither paper cited sources for the information.
On Friday, the Chicago Tribune quoted London-based defense analysts as saying the first of up to 20,000 British troops could start moving to the Gulf by the middle of this month.
There are 50,000 U.S. troops in the Gulf, and tens of thousands more will be deployed within the next few weeks. Britain currently has no ground forces in the region, but a defense expert told The Associated Press thousands probably would be sent to participate in any U.S.-led war.
"It's somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000, almost certainly," said Maj. Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies.
Heyman said the bulk of a British ground force likely would come from the 25,000 British troops stationed in Germany. He said it would take a month to move the troops to the region, making late February or early March the most likely time for an attack.
"There just aren't enough troops in the Gulf at the moment," he said.
On Friday, Bush told troops at a U.S. Army base in Texas that "we are ready, we are prepared" for war, but it remained a last resort.
"We certainly prefer voluntary compliance by Iraq. You see, the use of military force is this nation's last option, its last choice," he said.