British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says 10 percent of the country's armed forces are on fire-fighting duty because of a strike. Mr. Hoon says the military continues preparing for a possible war with Iraq.

Mr. Hoon told British radio he has mobilized the armed forces to fill in for striking firefighters, while at the same time keeping an eye on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"What is important is that we maintain the protection of the British public, in this case in relation to the consequences of a fire strike, in that case in relation to the threat that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction might pose. It is a balancing exercise," he said.

Mr. Hoon said no decision has been made about British troop deployments in the Middle East, and he played down suggestions that a war with Iraq could only happen during the cooler winter months. "Our troops, American troops, troops of other allies are trained to cope with some very demanding conditions in the heat, and you should not make any assumptions about the timing," Mr. Hoon said.

About 20,000 military personnel from the British Army, Navy, and Air Force are substituting for 50,000 firefighters who are on a nationwide strike demanding a 40 percent pay increase.

Three fire-related deaths were reported in the first hours of the strike, which began late Wednesday and is scheduled to last 48 hours. More strikes are planned for later this month and in December if the pay dispute is not resolved.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has rejected such a large salary increase, saying it could open the floodgates for large pay demands by other public sector unions.