LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair stuck by his stance toward Iraq in the face of strong anti-war sentiment in Britain, saying Monday that Iraq must be disarmed by force if it does not get rid of weapons of mass destruction.
Under heavy domestic political pressure to act only with the backing of the United Nations, Blair emphasized the importance of the world body's involvement but said that "unreasonable" opposition at the United Nationss should not prevent action.
Blair said he was "quite sure" Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that the world must wait while inspectors search for them. If the inspectors find evidence Saddam has such weapons, Blair said at a monthly news conference, there is no alternative to disarming him.
"Whatever happens, Saddam will be disarmed," the prime minister said. "We have complete and total determination to do this. ... It's not conflict that is inevitable, but disarmament is inevitable."
"Even now, Saddam should take the peaceful route and disarm," Blair said. "If he does not, however, he will be disarmed by force."
The top U.N. nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Monday that it could take a "few months" to complete the inspections, which began Nov. 27 after an absence of four years. He and other IAEA officials have said the mission could take up to a year.
Blair has been the staunchest overseas supporter of President Bush's tough stance on Iraq. But many Britons, including legislators within his ruling Labor Party, are opposed to any military action against Iraq unless the U.N. Security Council approves it in another resolution.
The United States has threatened war if Iraq doesn't rid itself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, and Washington has started a military building up in the Persian Gulf Region.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday that a "small group" of British army logistics experts had arrived in Iraq's neighbor, Kuwait, to prepare for a possible deployment there. They would be among the first British soldiers to join the United States' deployment.
Blair said "unreasonable or unilateral" opposition at the United Nations would not stop military action if it is deemed necessary.
"In those circumstances we have said we can't be in a position where we are confined in that way," he said. But he said he believed that if the council finds its resolution was violated" then action will be authorized."
Blair said he believed Saddam's 12,000-page weapons declaration was false but that he would wait for United Nations weapons inspectors to do their work.
"The most important thing is to let this process do what it's supposed to do, and there's no point in speculating about what's going to happen in the future," Blair said. He added that he had confidence the inspectors would do "a proper job."
Blair argued that alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed a serious threat to Britain.
"There is a direct threat to British national security in the trade in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons," the British leader said. "My fear is that we wake up one day and we find either that one of these dictatorial states has used weapons of mass destruction ... or alternatively these weapons ... fall into the hands of these terror groups."
"That is what I have to worry about," he said. "Every single day I am faced as British prime minister with information about how these weapons are proliferating."
On Saturday, the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal set sail toward the Gulf at the head of Britain's biggest naval deployment since the 1982 Falklands War.
Announcing the deployment last week, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the Ark Royal and 15 other vessels - including a helicopter carrier, three destroyers and a nuclear submarine - carrying 3,000 Royal Marines would head for the Mediterranean to train for action in the Gulf "if and as required."
Britain also will deploy 14 fighter jets to Iraq's neighbor, Jordan, later this month for a long-planned military exercise with the Jordanian air force.
A poll published Monday suggests a majority of Britons do not believe Saddam is sufficiently dangerous to justify a war.
The YouGov survey found that 61 percent of respondents thought there were links between Saddam and the al-Qaida terrorist network. But 58 percent were not convinced that Saddam was sufficiently dangerous to justify war, compared to 34 percent who said he was.
YouGov is an Internet-based outfit that draws on a base of 56,000 people who volunteer via the Web to participate in surveys. Respondents are each paid 80 cents to participate. YouGov questioned 1,425 adults online between Jan. 10-12. No margin of error was given.
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