Britain is making contingency plans for humanitarian assistance in the Middle East, if there is a war, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons. British International Development Secretary Clare Short has discussed the situation with correspondents in London.
Secretary Short says there is planning going on in Britain, at United Nations agencies and elsewhere to deal with any Iraqi chemical or biological attack that causes massive civilian casualties.
"The nightmare scenario would be a conflict that led to the use of chemical and biological weapons," Ms. Short said. "It's very difficult to prepare before, but I think that it's absolutely right and important that efforts are made to think about the numbers of people, where such a thing might take place, partly in order to avoid it coming about, because there is no easy way of handling that."
Ms. Short says that in a more optimistic scenario, the world community is planning to respond quickly with humanitarian aid, if Iraq cooperates with U.N. weapons inspectors, and sanctions are lifted.
Clare Short has been called the straightest talker in the British Cabinet, and she comes from the left-wing of the ruling Labor Party. She made headlines in 1991, when she quit a senior party post to protest the bombing of Iraq during the Gulf War.
In the current showdown with Iraq, Ms. Short says she agrees that military action must be threatened to convince Saddam Hussein to disarm.
But she says she is relieved that President Bush decided to ignore what she called his more "belligerent" advisers and turn instead to the United Nations for support. Now she hopes there will be no bloodshed.
"I think there is a possibility of getting through this crisis without large-scale military action," Ms. Short said. "I don't mean that that is absolutely secure, but I think that's increasingly possible."
Ms. Short said the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians also requires urgent attention, with a move toward creating a Palestinian state.
She also said the Palestinians face a humanitarian crisis, with the U.N. reporting child malnutrition in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as bad as it is in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ms. Short said these problems have led to much of the anti-Western resentment seen within the world's Muslim community.