Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Britain’s House of Commons that “I have today made an order … to enable the callout of reservists for possible actions against Iraq.”
Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac told his armed forces to be prepared for possible deployment, the clearest signal to date that France may participate in military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Hoon said the British government was initially mobilizing some 1,500 soldiers but added that it would be “misleading as well as undesirable” to reveal the total number of reserve troops being activated.
The British government expanded a previously planned naval exercise to the Mediterranean, confirming that at least six Royal Navy vessels, which include an aircraft carrier, a submarine and a destroyer, would leave Britain this weekend for a training exercise that will include a stop in the Persian Gulf.
Hoon said the mobilization did not mean war with Iraq was either imminent or inevitable. The move appears to be part of a new series of tactics by the U.S. and Britain, Washington’s closest ally in the campaign against Saddam, to put pressure on Baghdad.
“This does not mean that a decision has been taken to commit British forces to such operations,” Hoon said. “But it is an essential enabling measure to ensure that if such operations become necessary they will be properly supported.”
A spokesman from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office told the Associated Press that Hoon’s decision “delivers on … our promise that we would make preparations in case military action is needed.”
The Pentagon has ordered additional U.S. troops to the Gulf in recent weeks, indicating that it plans to send some 250,000 U.S. forces to the region. Some 50,000 are already in place.
In Paris, President Chirac said French troops will continue to be needed in certain “operational theaters” such as the Ivory Coast, where more than 2,000 French forces are currently stationed. He added that, “alas, other [theaters] could open up,” and that troops should be ready for “anything that may happen” in the year ahead.
“The international community should only resort to war as a last resort, once all other options are exhausted,” Chirac told diplomats at a ceremonial function, adding that any future decision to use force must be approved by the U.N. Security Council.
France has been reluctant in its support for Washington in the Iraq matter and was one of several countries that blocked a U.S. move to have the Security Council adopt a resolution that would have automatically approved military action if Iraq did not comply with the newest terms for disarmament.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told a French radio station earlier Tuesday that the French army was not making special preparations for war in Iraq, but that “the French army is ready to fulfill its obligations when necessary.”
The moves by Britain and France represent some of the first public signs of support for a potential U.S.-led war on Iraq. The White House has not received similar public pledges of military support from other allies who were involved in the 1991 Gulf War, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, who say they won’t make an official decision without U.N. approval of potential military action.