LONDON – In an effort to persuade Saddam Hussein to disarm or face the consequences, Britain announced Monday that it is sending one-quarter of its army -- a land force of 26,000 troops -- to the Persian Gulf.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the deployment will take place in the coming weeks and would provide "the right group of forces for the sort of tasks that may be necessary."
Additional reservists also will be called out to support these troops, Hoon told the House of Commons, where opposition has been strong to a U.S.-led war against Iraq, unless Washington first wins U.N. Security Council approval.
A deployment on this scale is "no ordinary measure," Hoon said, but he also emphasized that "none of the steps we are taking represents a commitment of British forces to military action. A decision to employ force has not been taken, nor is such a decision imminent or inevitable."
He did not say where the troops would be sent in the Gulf, and a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman also refused to disclose that information, citing security concerns. She said the 26,000 soldiers being committed made up one-quarter of the army.
Hoon said diplomatic efforts to persuade Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction would fail unless they were backed by a "clear and credible threat of force."
"It is not too late for Saddam Hussein to recognize the will of the international community and respect United Nations resolutions," Hoon said. "Let us all hope that he does so."
The defense secretary also outlined the military equipment that the British ground forces will use, including 120 Challenger tanks and 150 Warrior armored personnel carriers.
The United States and Britain have threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not give up its alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Iraq maintains it has no banned weapons, and on Friday Saddam said Iraq was ready for war with the United States.
Britain has dispatched its biggest naval task group in 20 years toward the Gulf for long-planned training exercises. The flotilla includes warships, a helicopter carrier and a submarine, and will carry a total of 3,000 Royal Marines and some 5,000 sailors.
Britain, America's strongest ally on Iraq, also will deploy 14 fighter jets to Iraq's neighbor, Jordan, later this month for a long-planned exercise with the Jordanian air force.
The total British deployment will still be smaller than the 48,000 troops Britain sent to the 1991 Gulf War.
A new poll, appearing in Tuesday's The Guardian newspaper, showed that public support for another war with Iraq has fallen to its lowest since ICM began conducting such surveys in August. The Guardian poll said 81 percent of Britons would oppose war without a new U.N. mandate. The poll was conducted Jan. 17-19. No margin of error was provided.
Two governing Labor Party legislators also criticized Hoon's announcement of the deployment.
"The government has not made a case for war against Iraq," said lawmaker Alice Mahon.
Glenda Jackson, who gave up acting for public service, said Hoon's insistence that Britain was not yet committed to military action "rings very hollow indeed."
Earlier Monday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw supported U.S. suggestions that Saddam go into exile to avoid military action.
Straw said it would be "unpalatable to see any degree of immunity being offered to the Saddam Hussein regime."
But he said he agreed with Rumsfeld's assessment, adding: "If the alternative is a war, I think most people would swallow hard and accept that it was in his words a fair trade."