20,000 UK troops destined for Iraq

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TONY Blair is to authorise the sending of an expeditionary force of up to 20,000 servicemen and women to the Middle East for a US-led war against Iraq.

Senior Whitehall sources said the Prime Minister’s decision, expected at the end of the month, comes amid growing concern among defence chiefs at the lack of strategic direction from the government to allow them to prepare troops for any mission to Iraq.

Mr Blair kept war planning within a small group of civil servants and military officers working in the Cabinet Office to prevent leaks prior to the Labour Party conference.

"Now the conference is out of the way, the Prime Minister feels more confident to start winding up military preparations," said one source. "Up to now, the line has been that no decisions have been made about war. This will start to change ."

Last month, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, visited Donald Rumsfeld, his US counterpart, to offer British troops for an Iraqi campaign. However, defence sources said that since then, there had been little feedback from the US on what type of troops they want and how they would be used.

The sources said a prompt decision from the government was needed to allow the army to begin training for desert warfare. The "big" British contribution would involve heavy armoured forces to fight alongside US divisions currently gathering in Kuwait.

An enlarged armoured brigade with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior troop carriers will be the core of the UK force. Most of the units will be drawn from the 1st Armoured Division and 7th Armoured Brigade, based in Germany.

Two Scottish regiments, the Black Watch and Scots Dragoon Guards, are currently assigned to the Desert Rats Brigade and will play a key role in any desert deployment. Up until last month, they were on stand-by for firefighting duty, but were then told to return to normal military training. Military sources described this ring-fencing of Germany-based combat units as prudent contingency planning to allow initial preparations to be made in the run-up to Mr Blair’s deployment announcement.

A strong RAF contingent is also expected to be sent to the Middle East to join Tornado squadrons from RAF Lossiemouth, in Morayshire, and RAF Leuchers, in Fife, that are already in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on no-fly zone patrol duty.

President George Bush was last night preparing to make what White House aides described as his most comprehensive case yet on the threat posed by Iraq and why a US-led war on Saddam Hussein’s regime may be necessary.

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, meanwhile urged the Iraqi military to defy Saddam if he orders attacks on US forces: "The message to Iraqi commanders is, ‘Think before you act. You do not have to obey the orders Saddam Hussein gives you and the United States takes very seriously the criminal nature of these acts, particularly acts that would involve the use of chemical and biological weapons.’"

The US has an estimated 2,400 troops in Oman. About 500 more are based in the United Arab Emirates and the US navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain. Another 3,300 US soldiers are stationed in neighbouring Qatar, where the US recently upgraded its al-Udeid air base, the forward command centre for any US war on Iraq.