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'British Troops Ready for War,' says Defense Minister Hoon - 2003-03-13

Britain says its troops are ready for war against Iraq in case diplomatic efforts at the United Nations break down. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has criticized France for rejecting a British disarmament plan for Iraq that is now before the U.N. Security Council

In a briefing with foreign correspondents based in London, Defense Secretary Hoon emphasized that Britain remains focused on pushing a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq, despite France's threat of a veto.

"We will continue our efforts in the United Nations, and indeed here, through contacts with other countries and despite what we believe to be an extraordinary and unreasonable stance taken by the French government, who within hours rejected our most recent proposals, adding to their previous statement that whatever the circumstances, France will still vote no," he said.

Britain has clearly been stung by France's swift rejection of a six-point Iraq disarmament plan the British had floated at the United Nations on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out that France rejected the proposal even before Iraq did.

Meanwhile, at the British Foreign Office, sources say the diplomatic push will continue at the United Nations, at least through Sunday, and they say the United States agrees with that approach.

However, it is clear that time is running out for the British initiative, and Mr. Hoon says if war becomes necessary, the 30,000 British troops deployed around Iraq are prepared.

"British forces are ready," Mr. Hoon said. "I receive regular reports from the theater and if asked to do so they will be participating in any military action, but they have not yet been asked to do so."

In a further sign that war with Iraq may be just days away, the Foreign Office says Queen Elizabeth has postponed a visit to Belgium planned for next week. A spokesman said it would not be appropriate for the queen to be out of the country in the present circumstances.

The last time Queen Elizabeth postponed a foreign trip was after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, when she was to have traveled to Australia.