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Bush prepares final build-up for invasion

The US has set in motion the final build-up of men and equipment for an invasion of Iraq which now looks all but certain to happen some time in February – whatever the UN inspectors inside the country unearth or fail to unearth.

Although Iraq sought to demonstrate its co-operation with the inspectors yesterday by handing over a list of 500 scientists, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary for Defense, has signed a 20-page Pentagon deployment order. This weekend the navy issued "prepare to deploy" instructions to two aircraft carrier groups, two amphibious assault groups and the 1,000-bed hospital ship USS Comfort, for them to be ready to go to the Gulf at 96 hours' notice.

No specific date has been disclosed. But events in the region, on the ground in Iraq and at US military bases around the world are unfolding as if choreographed – all pointing to a US-led attack to topple Saddam Hussein some six to eight weeks from now.

Inside Iraq, inspectors have started their second month of work, with daily visits to up to half a dozen sites suspected of being linked to banned Iraqi nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programmes. They have also begun interviews with Iraqi scientists.

So far, however, nothing suggests the inspectors have discovered any damning evidence. Despite vague undertakings by Baghdad, there is no sign that any key Iraqi scientist, plus his family, will dare to leave the country for questioning – a process which Washington maintains is the only way of securing an honest account of what Saddam is up to, without threat of retaliation by the regime.

The few scientists who have taken part in interviews have done so on Iraqi soil, invariably in the presence of a government official. Not surprisingly, accounts of their value differ sharply. On Friday, for instance, a UN spokesman said one scientist, Kazem Mojbal, had yielded information about Iraqi military work suspected of being part of a secret bid to construct nuclear weapons, which could be "of great use" as the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency prepared its assessment of Saddam's programmes.

But Mr Mojbal yesterday dismissed the claims. "I strongly deny this," he told a press conference in Baghdad. "I'm very annoyed about these statements and such fabrications." Such manoeuvring will have little effect on the decisions that really matter, to be taken here in Washington.

The next key date is 27 January, when Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector, will present his first detailed interim report to the Security Council. The Bush administration has already found Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations to the UN because of omissions in its 12,000-page weapons declaration last month. If Mr Blix's report does not fill in those gaps to Washington's satisfaction, a US-led assault would become inevitable. All the while, diplomatic as well as military preparations for invasion intensify. This weekend visiting US officials put the final touches in Ankara to a financial compensation package for Turkey, which would play a central part in the blitzkrieg-like war Pentagon planners have in mind.

Turkey, which says existing sanctions on Iraq have already cost it $40bn (£25bn) in trade, opposes a war. It now wants a reported $28bn in new assistance and guarantees, if it is to allow its bases, ports and railways to be used for an attack which could see thousands of US troops move into neighbouring northern Iraq from staging posts in Turkey. From both sides now there is but the barest mention of peace.

Iraq's Trade Minister, Mehdi Salah, proclaimed that his countrymen would "fight from village to village, from city to city and from street to street". The enemy "will be taught an unforgettable lesson if he tries to attack", vowed Mr Salah as he announced extra food rations for civilians.

But by readying the Comfort, the US is sending a message that it is preparing for a bloody war if need be. The authorised deployments will have the effect of doubling US troop strength in the Gulf region to over 100,000. The final US deployment could total 200,000 to 250,000: only half the size of the army that drove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, but possessing even more deadly and intimidating weaponry.