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Iraq: U.S. And Britain Stand United

Washington, 6 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Britain are voicing a firm stand against Baghdad's defiance of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the White House Thursday to assure President Bill Clinton that Britain is fully supportive of Washington's efforts to resolve the latest stalemate.

Both leaders said there is still time to avoid a military showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- even as preparations for a possible strike continue.

Clinton said Saddam must permit U.N. inspectors to have free access to suspected weapons sites. He said he wants to avoid using force.

Said Clinton: "I haven't talked to a single soul who hopes there will be some sort of violent encounter -- not a soul."

At the same time, Clinton said it is in the interest of the United States - and the rest of the world - to prevent Iraq from building a biological, chemical and nuclear weapons capability, and missiles to deliver such weapons.

Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iraq is forbidden to possess weapons of mass destruction and must allow U.N. inspectors free access to suspected sites.

The directives were passed in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, triggered by Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Allied forces, led by the United States, dislodged Iraqi troops from Kuwait but left Saddam in power.

The Iraqi leader says Baghdad has fulfilled the Security Council resolutions. He insists Iraq does not possess -- or intend to develop -- weapons of mass destruction. And he told the United Nations his presidential palaces are off limits to the weapons inspectors.

At the White House welcoming ceremony Thursday, Blair noted that the United States and Britain have stood together often to fight for a just cause.

"Today, in the face of the threat from Saddam Hussein, we must stand together once more," Blair said. "We want a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but the success or failure of diplomacy rests on Saddam."

Then Blair issued a direct warning to Saddam Hussein: "If he fails to respond, then he knows that the threat of force is there and it is real."

The United States already has a formidable Navy armada off Iraqi shores.

On Thursday, a third aircraft carrier arrived in the Persian Gulf. The USS Independence carried 5,000 sailors and about 50 combat aircraft, joining the USS Nimitz and USS George Washington

It is the first time since the Gulf War that the United States has three carriers in the Gulf.

Britain also has a Navy carrier in the Gulf.

Senior Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said 2,000 U.S. Marines began heading to the Gulf from their station in the Mediterranean Sea to provide additional flexibility to the U.S. presence.

The Marines are capable of conducting amphibious landings. The officials say the troops are expected to reach the Gulf in about a week.