LONDON -- Britain will send a land force of 26,000 troops, about a quarter of its army, to the Persian Gulf region in preparation for possible military action against Iraq, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Monday.
The deployment is a dramatic increase in Britain's military mobilization for any Iraq war. Britain had already sent a Naval force with about 3,000 Royal Marines and 5,000 sailors toward the Gulf for training.
Hoon announced the large deployment in the House of Commons, where there has been strong opposition from his own Labor Party against a U.S.-led war against Iraq without U.N. approval.
The deployment, which will take place in the coming weeks, would include 120 Challenger tanks and 150 Warrior armored personnel carriers, Hoon told Parliament.
Hoon did not say where the troops would be sent in the Gulf, and a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman also refused to disclose that information for security reasons. She said the 26,000 soldiers being committed made up one-quarter of the army.
The total British deployment is still much smaller than the 48,000 troops Britain sent to the 1991 Gulf War.
Additional reservists also will be called out in the coming weeks to support these troops, Hoon told the legislators.
A deployment on this scale is "no ordinary measure," Hoon said. But "a decision to employ force has not been taken, nor is such a decision imminent or inevitable," he said.
Britain has been the strongest supporter of the United States' tough stance toward Iraq. Washington and London have threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not give up chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Iraq maintains it has no banned weapons.
Britain already has dispatched its biggest naval task group in 20 years toward the Gulf for long-planned training exercises. The flotilla includes several warships, a helicopter carrier and a submarine, and is carrying a total of 3,000 Royal Marines and be manned by some 5,000 sailors.
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.
Earlier Monday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw supported U.S. suggestions that Saddam go into exile to avoid military action against Iraq.
"I think it is a very sensible suggestion which we have got to examine," Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said over the weekend that Saddam's flight from Baghdad would be a "fair trade" for avoiding military conflict.
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."
"War is literally a last choice and we want to do everything we can to resolve this issue of Iraq's disarmament of its weapons of mass destruction by peaceful means," Straw added. "But we have to keep turning up the pressure because it's only pressure that Iraq responds to."
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