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Britain Denies Reports of Large Iraqi Counterattacks - 2003-03-27

Senior British officials say reports of large Iraqi counterattacks against coalition forces are false, and they say they have found more evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may be planning to use chemical weapons.

British military chief of staff Admiral Michael Boyce says the reports of large Iraqi military forces moving out of Baghdad and Basra to confront coalition forces appear to come from journalists in the war zone who misunderstand discussions among coalition commanders. The admiral says it is difficult for the commanders to identify traffic coming out of the cities at night, and the reporters may jump to conclusions.

"At night, when you do have the passage of traffic coming out of cities, it is a wise commander that will assume the worst to start off with, get ready to deal with that, while he evaluates, analyzes, and classifies what he's actually seeing," the admiral said. "And of course with our good friends from the media embedded with us they'll hear those deliberations going on, will usually jump on that and report this is what's happening. And suddenly we have the sort of news we had last night. "

Admiral Boyce says British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks near Basra Thursday morning, but he says this was not part of any major Iraqi offensive.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says there were reports of as many as 120 Iraqi tanks coming out of Basra Wednesday night, in fact he says, there were only three and coalition forces destroyed them. He says there was no Iraqi force moving south from Baghdad, as was widely reported.

The British officials also showed a videotape of British soldiers in a captured Iraqi command center in the Rumeila oil fields area in southern Iraq, surrounded by what they said were more than 100 chemical protective suits, gas masks and related equipment.

Defense Secretary Hoon said there is only one reason Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would have deployed such equipment.

"It's obviously not conclusive, but it is indicative of an intention," he said. "Otherwise, why equip his own forces to deal with a threat which he knows we do not have? So, it must only be to protect his forces from his own use of those weapons which we know he has."

Earlier, coalition forces found 200 chemical weapons suits at a hospital being used as a command center in the southern city of Nasiriyah. Defense Secretary Hoon said the coalition forces' most important job is to deny Iraq the ability to use weapons of mass destruction. He said the coalition is hitting particular command and control systems to accomplish that goal.

At their news conference in London, the British officials also said they can not be sure what caused the explosion in a Baghdad market on Wednesday that Iraqi officials report killed 15 people. Iraq says it was a coalition bomb.

The British officials also said three ships loaded with humanitarian aid are ready to enter the port of Umm Qasr, including two from Australia that are loaded with grain. But Admiral Boyce reports their entry into the port was delayed by the discovery of two more mines in the water, in addition to about 100 that coalition minesweepers have destroyed in recent days. The admiral says the first of the relief ships should reach Umm Qasr on Friday.

The British officials also report that the bad weather over the last two days provided a much-needed opportunity for rest by some units, which had been on the move nearly non-stop for several days. The officials say in recent days coalition forces also consolidated their positions around Basra and the nearby oil fields, and that civilian contractors are already working to restore the oil wells to operation.

Defense Secretary Hoon expressed anger at the Iraqi authorities for showing pictures of two dead British soldiers on television. He said the move is a flagrant abuse of the Geneva Conventions.