War rehearsal

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. - AP PHOTO/ PETER BYRNE

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. - AP PHOTO/ PETER BYRNE

BRITISH officers took part in a United States war game aimed at preparing for a possible invasion of Iran despite repeated claims by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that a military strike against Iran is inconceivable.

The war game, codenamed "Hotspur 2004", took place at the U.S. base of Fort Belvoir in Virginia in July 2004.

A British Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman played down its significance on April 14. "These paper-based exercises are designed to test officers to the limit in fictitious scenarios. We use invented countries and situations using real maps," he said.

The disclosure of Britain's participation came in the week in which the Iranian crisis intensified, with a U.S. report that the White House was contemplating a tactical nuclear strike and Teheran defying the United Nations Security Council.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, who sparked outrage in the U.S., Europe and Israel last year by calling for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth, created more alarm. He told a conference in Teheran in support of the Palestinians: "Like it or not, the Zionist regime is heading towards annihilation. The Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm."

The senior British officers took part in the Iranian war game just over a year after the invasion of Iraq. It was focussed on the Caspian Sea, with an invasion date of 2015. Although the planners said the game was based on a fictitious West Asian country called Korona, the border corresponded exactly with Iran's and the characteristics of the enemy were Iranian.

A British medium-weight brigade operated as part of a U.S.-led force.

The MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which helped run the war game, described it on its website as the "year's main analytical event of the U.K.-U.S. Future Land Operations Interoperability Study" aimed at ensuring that both armies worked well together. The study "was extremely well received on both sides of the Atlantic," it said.

According to an MoD source, war games covering a variety of scenarios are conducted regularly by senior British officers in the U.K., the U.S. or at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) headquarters. He cited senior military staff carrying out a mock invasion of southern England in April and one of Scotland in January.

However, Hotspur took place at a time of accelerated U.S. planning after the fall of Baghdad for a possible conflict with Iran. That plan is being carried out by U.S. Central Command, responsible for the West Asian and Central Asian areas of operations, and by Strategic Command, which carries out long-range bombing and nuclear operations.

William Arkin, a former army intelligence officer who first reported on the contingency planning for a possible nuclear strike against Iran in his military column for The Washington Post online, said: "The United States military is really, really getting ready, building war plans and options, studying maps, shifting its thinking."

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: "The Foreign Secretary has made his position very clear that military action is inconceivable. The Foreign Office regards speculation about war, particularly involving Britain, as unhelpful at a time when the diplomatic route is still being pursued."

Julian Borger in Washington and Ewen MacAskill in London Guardian Newspapers Limited

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