Iraqi threats as US warships move in

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The Iraqis have threatened to shoot down an American U-2 spy plane which is expected to fly over Iraq today. Extra forces are being deployed in the region. The Iraqi foreign minister said he would `not be surprised' if the crisis escalated into military confrontation. Mary Dejevsky and Fran Abrams report.

President Bill Clinton yesterday ordered a second aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, to the Persian Gulf to join the USS Nimitz and the fleet of warships already there, almost doubling the United States military strength in the region. The US was also said to be negotiating the transfer of Stealth bombers to the region.

While arguing the merits of being "prepared for any contingency", however, a succession of senior US officials stressed that the US preference was for a diplomatic solution. The National Security adviser, Sandy Berger, speaking publicly about the crisis for the first time, said: "Our first priority is to solve this by diplomatic and peaceful means, and to work with our allies."

The British defence minister, John Reid, announced that six Harrier GR7s based at RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire, were being prepared for possible deployment in the Gulf. Their notice to move is to be reduced from five days to 48 hours. The aircraft carrier HMS Invincible was continuing to cross the Atlantic to Gibraltar.

As ministers announced measures to prepare Britain for the possibility of renewed conflict, Tony Blair said that Saddam Hussein would make "a very, very, severe mistake indeed" if he did not come back in line with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The Prime Minister is expected to phone President Bill Clinton today to voice his support for America's tough stance on Iraq's decision to expel US weapons inspectors.

Mr Blair said yesterday: "I think it is absolutely essential that we realise that the reason we are taking this action is because Iraq must not be able to develop weapons of mass destruction for biological and chemical warfare. If that happens the consequences, not just for that region but for the whole of the world, would be disastrous."

The Iraqi foreign minister, Mohammad Said al-Sahaf, said, meanwhile, that Iraq did not want military confrontation. If there were an attack, however, he stressed that Iraq would "stand firm and emerge strong".

He was speaking only hours after UN weapons inspectors had left Baghdad, withdrawn by the head of Unscom (the UN commission responsible for disarming Iraq) in protest against Iraq's summary expulsion of six American inspectors the previous day.

Mr Sahaf attacked the decision, saying that the Australian chairman of Unscom, Richard Butler, had acted on behalf of the US and without authorisation from the UN.

And the withdrawal of the non-American inspectors - ordered by Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, the commission overseeing the disarming of Iraq - was attacked by several Security Council members, who objected to not being informed in advance. Mr Butler defended his decision, saying that if he had left the other inspectors in Iraq without the Americans, "I would simply have completed Saddam's policy for him."

Reports from Iraq say that groups of civilians, including women and children, are being moved to sensitive strategic installations around the country to act as human shields. Several thousand people, seen arriving in Baghdad in recent days, are already installed in presidential palaces and other buildings.