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Canada has dramatically increased its naval responsibilities in the Persian Gulf as the United States prepares for war against Iraq.

Ottawa and Washington have agreed that a senior Canadian officer will command all allied naval warships, aside from the U.S. aircraft carrier and its close escorts, in the Persian Gulf south of Kuwait and extending through the Strait of Hormuz, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Commodore Roger Girouard assumed command on Friday of the new Task Force 151, which will be responsible for escorting ships, intercepting and boarding suspect vessels and guarding against attacks on shipping.

Cmdre. Girouard, who was in charge of Canada's naval task force sent to East Timor in 1999, will likely command up to 20 allied warships, including U.S., French, Italian, Dutch, Greek and Canadian frigates and destroyers.

The command shift and greatly increased geographic area of operations is only part of Canadian efforts to step up preparations in anticipation of a war against Iraq. A group of 25 senior Canadian officers have been sent to a U.S. command post in Qatar to plan for possible Canadian contributions.

"We're trying to see what options might be available to the government if the UN sanctions on the use of force were necessary," said Major Richard Saint-Louis, the Canadian spokesman attached to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, where U.S. General Tommy Franks will run any war against Iraq.

Although the hugely expanded area of navy operations comes as the Pentagon readies a massive U.S.-led coalition for war against Iraq, the tasks so far assigned to the Canadian-commanded naval task force remain part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the name assigned to the Afghanistan campaign to smash al-Qaeda and catch fleeing terrorists.

"We are sticking exclusively to Enduring Freedom," Major Saint-Louis said.

Although he said that the Cmdre. Girouard will be responsible for allied warships operating in "the central and southern" Gulf, he declined to confirm that the zone extended as far north as the Kuwait boundary.

In the far northern Gulf, Australian and U.S. warships are patrolling close to the Shatt-al-Arab, Iraq's only access to the sea.

For more than a year, Canada has commanded a small flotilla of warships operating mostly outside the Persian Gulf, intercepting tankers and freighters and searching for fugitives.

The new task force, designated TF-151, will report directly to U.S. Admiral Barry Costello commanding Task Force 51, currently the aircraft carrier USS Constellation and its escorting cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

A British naval task force, centred on the carrier Ark Royal, will also report to the Admiral Costello.

A second U.S. carrier group is expected in the Gulf and others are operating in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

The increased responsibilities and area of operation will almost certainly require the Canadian government to dispatch HMCS Iroquois, a destroyer fitted out as a flagship with the space and communications equipment needed to manage and command a far-flung group of warships.

The navy has already asked the government to send the Iroquois to join Canadian frigates already in the region but no decision has been announced, a senior naval source said yesterday.

Yesterday, facing a possible backbench revolt, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said the United States must have a United Nations mandate before it can launch an attack on Iraq.

One Liberal backbencher said in the House of Commons that he would vote no confidence in his own government if the cabinet decided to join the United States in an attack without a UN mandate. Former cabinet ministers joined a flock of Liberal doves calling on Washington to give diplomacy more time before launching a war.

"Canada is always ready whatever the situation is," the Prime Minister said yesterday although it is probably too late to deploy meaningful numbers of ground troops or combat aircraft.