Britons are told to get out of Iraq

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THE FOREIGN Office warned all British nationals to leave Iraq immediately amid signs yesterday that a countdown to military action had begun.

British tourists in vulnerable Middle Eastern countries began streaming home and England's participation in an under-18 football tournament in Israel was cancelled. Hundreds of holidaymakers in Israel were being flown home last night and tour operators were cancelling flights to the region.

The football cancellation came after the Football Association asked the European Federation, Uefa, to postpone next week's event involving Spain, Andorra and Israel.

The United States and Britain continued to muster forces for a possible attack yesterday, as the Cabinet gave formal approval for a massive assault against military targets.

With Saddam Hussein remaining defiant, there was a mood of resignation in Downing Street that the diplomatic track had failed. The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, spoke of the "sad inevitability" of the use of force.

Washington warned that attacks on Iraq would not be pinprick strikes. "They will be significant should they be carried out," William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary, said. In Iraq, the Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, said he saw "no light at the end of the tunnel".

Mr Robertson briefed the Cabinet before ministers approved the use of the 12 RAF Tornado bombers in support of US air attacks, which will be led by Cruise missiles, if the Iraqi leader does not back down.

Tony Blair was engaged in diplomatic efforts to maintain unity in Europe. "The next step is action if Saddam is not prepared to come back into compliance with his word," he said.

Mr Robertson said: "There is no timescale of what will happen to Saddam but a very clear message has to go out."

Dissent came from Tam Dalyell, a Labour backbench MP, who warned that the bombing might resemble the Second World War blitz on Dresden.

Downing Street issued a dossier to MPs detailing breaches by President Saddam, including allegations that traces of nerve gas were found on warheads. "He will never give up his weapons of mass destruction, unless forced to do so," it said.

The US dispatched B-52 bombers and F-117 Stealth fighters to the region, sending a dozen of each to its military base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Crucial support came from eight Arab states. "The Iraqi government will be solely responsible for all repercussions resulting from its decision to block Unscom," said Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.