Region's troops head for the Gulf

MORE than 2,000 soldiers from East Anglia are being deployed to the Gulf as part of a 30,000-strong land force, it emerged last night .

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By Andrew Woodcock, Political Correspondent, PA News

MORE than 2,000 soldiers from East Anglia are being deployed to the Gulf as part of a 30,000-strong land force, it emerged last night .

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Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon announced that 26,000 troops, including detachments of Paras and the Desert Rats, were to be deployed to join 4,000 Commandos already sent to the region – ready for a possible invasion of Iraq.

Among them will be 2,100 combat troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, based at Colchester Garrison and Wattisham Airfield, near Needham Market.

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Mr Hoon said they would provide "a high-readiness, balanced and flexible force package, bringing together a wide range of capabilities".

"The Chiefs of Staff and I are confident that this is the right group of forces for the sort of tasks that may be necessary,'' he told MPs in a statement to the House of Commons.

Mr Hoon acknowledged that the deployment - the largest since the Kosovo conflict - was "no ordinary measure''.

But he insisted it did not mean war was inevitable.

The massive land force, which will join more than 100,000 US troops in the Gulf, piles pressure on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to comply with United Nations demands to eliminate any weapons of mass destruction programmes.

Yesterday's deployment included Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division, with support from 7th Armoured Brigade - the Desert Rats - 16 Air Assault Brigade, and 102 Logistics Brigade.

Forces sent from 16 Air Assault Brigade will include 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, 2nd Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, 23 Engineer Regiment, a squadron of the Household Cavalry and 3rd Regiment Army Air Corps, equipped with helicopters.

No details were given of where the troops will be based or when they will leave for the Gulf, though Mr Hoon said that deployment would take place by air and sea "over the days and weeks ahead''.

Britain's largest naval task force since the Falklands, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and carrying 3,000 Royal Marines and 5,000 sailors, has already set sail for the Mediterranean in preparation to be moved to the Gulf if war is declared.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday warned that time was running out for Saddam.

He told a counter-terrorism meeting of UN Security Council foreign ministers in New York: "The moment of choice for Saddam is close.

"He must either resolve this crisis peacefully, by the full and active compliance with his Security Council obligations and full co-operation with inspectors, or face the 'serious consequences' - the use of force - which this Council warned would follow when it passed (Resolution) 1441.''

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer told the meeting that his country - which holds the Security Council presidency next month - opposed military action against Iraq.

War could result in "disastrous consequences for long-term regional stability'' and, "possible negative repercussions for the joint fight against terrorism,'' he warned.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Council must be prepared to take difficult decisions when the inspectors report their progress on January 27.

Shadow defence secretary and Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin gave the Tories' full support for the deployment of British land forces.

But he raised concerns over whether the troops involved were "fully trained and fully equipped'' for whatever tasks they may be asked to perform.

He called on the Government to furnish them with "friend or foe'' identification systems to prevent a repeat of the "friendly fire'' incidents in the 1991 Gulf War, when UK troops were accidentally killed by Americans.

Mr Jenkin said: "Those of us who believe in the justness of this cause must continue to make the case for the disarmament of Saddam.

"War is by no means inevitable, but if we are to ask our troops possibly to risk their lives, they need to be certain that the nation is behind them.''

Mr Hoon said: "Our forces are fully and thoroughly prepared to face this kind of operation.''

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