PARLIAMENT: GULF CRISIS: Saddam given warning again by minister

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THE GOVERNMENT reiterated warnings last night that Britain and its allies may be "forced to take military action" against Iraq. Lord Gilbert, Minster of State for Defence Procurement, told the peers during the Queen's Speech debate: "Our forces in the Gulf remain on high alert and on station and the military option is still in place. The response of Saddam Hussein in the last few days, the inconclusive exchange of letters between Iraq and Unscom last weekend, is - I am afraid to say - a very bad omen ... If we are forced to take military action, there should be no doubt whatever where the blame should lie." Lord Moynihan, for the Tories, said: "We firmly support the Government's robust line towards Iraq."

Lord Owen, a cross-bencher, former Labour foreign secretary and ex-SDP leader, said: "I am afraid it won't be a matter of more than a few weeks before we are once more engaged in conflict with Saddam Hussein. I cannot believe this latest challenge which he has mounted in the UN can be left unchallenged."

A former chief of the defence staff, RAF Marshal Lord Craig of Radley, spoke of the strain on morale of air crews and their families of uncertainties about strikes against Iraq. Lord Craig, a cross-bencher, who was defence chief in the build-up to the Gulf war, said of recent events: "The Prime Minister phones his good wishes to the Tornado crews in Kuwait at the 11th hour - and they are ready to launch into their attack, strapped into their cockpits and within 15 minutes of take-off when the attacks were cancelled. The impact on all those who were going to take part must have been dramatic. I doubt if anyone was quite ready or prepared for such a last-minute cancellation. Modern communications give the Government the chance to make such changes at the last minute. I am not so confident the impact on those we expect to fight our battles is as simple or easy or straightforward.

"I hope that the Government will not be tempted to try to turn people's emotions and fighting spirits on and off as though they were light-bulbs. It's not just the servicemen but their families and friends ... who are caught up in this." Lord Craig warned that apparent indecision and vacillation could lead to a loss of credibility.

"We are trying to be ready to fight in the Gulf once again as well as dealing with the troubled regions of Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and the like. I hope we do not get caught up trying to do too much too soon."

Lord Craig reminded defence ministers of their own "wise words" in the recent Strategic Defence Review that "we need to resolve the problems of undermanning and additional overstretch that comes from over-commitment".