U.S. readies forces in Persian Gulf; Iraq trains civilian defense force

give guns and grenades to civilians in case of attack, a U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf declared Saturday that U.S. warplanes are capable of weeks of “devastating” strikes on Iraq.
While both sides prepared for the possibility of war, a team of 23 U.N. experts arrived Saturday for new talks to try to end the latest U.N.-Iraq crisis over weapons inspections — peacefully.
U.N. inspectors suspect that Iraq is hiding key components of weapons programs and demand unrestricted access to sites that Baghdad has declared off-limits, including President Saddam Hussein’s.
Increasingly, the United States is threatening to use military force if Iraq persists in limiting the inspectors, who are searching for banned long-range missiles and biological and chemical weapons.
Rear Adm. Michael Mullen said Saturday that if ordered to do so, U.S. Navy warplanes could launch continuous attacks against Iraq for weeks in a “very precise and very devastating manner.”
Mullen spoke from the deck of the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier stationed about 100 miles off the southern coast of Iraq. The United States and Britain have been building their forces in the Gulf in the face of challenges from Iraq.
For its part, Iraq planned to start training men Sunday in the use of guns and grenades for a civilian defense force. Iraq says 1 million people have volunteered for the force; Iraqis say authorities went door-to-door registering men of fighting age.
Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was spreading the word Saturday that a military strike is increasingly likely.
“We are not saber-rattling,” Richardson said at an economic gathering in Davos, Switzerland. “But diplomacy is very, very much running out. We are not announcing any plans of any kind except to say that military force is very much on the table.”
But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, one of the first officials to meet Richardson in Davos, emphasized that discussions are still going on.
“I think we should let the process take its course,” he added. “Let’s see what happens.”
The technical evaluation talks, which start Sunday, are aimed at solving the dispute between Iraq and the United Nations on the accounting of Iraq’s warheads and long-range missiles and the VX chemical warfare agent. Another round in mid-February will consider biological weapons.