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A bitterly cold wind whipped HMCS Iroquois on Monday as the destroyer and its crew of 285 left Halifax harbour for the waters of uncertainty in the Gulf of Oman.

It is the second time in as many years that the crew of the warship and their families have been given 10 days notice of departure and sent to a volatile and uncertain situation.

The destroyer will serve as the command ship of an eight-nation coalition now involved in the war on terrorism in the Gulf of Oman. The coalition vessels are now patrolling the waters to enforce economic sanctions against Iraq and to prevent terrorist activity in the area.

But that role could change should the United States declare war on Iraq and Canada decide to play a support role.

The Iroquois was the first ship to head for the war on terrorism in October, 2001, and returned to Halifax in April, 2002. The destroyer was not scheduled to be deployed until July. But two weeks ago, the Navy announced that it was needed in the region to serve as the command platform for the coalition. The frigate HMCS Fredericton's excursion to the Northern Arabian Sea was postponed and its Sea King helicopter and crew were posted to the Iroquois.

On Sunday, Defence Minister John McCallum said Canada could potentially participate in a war on Iraq by deploying the ships currently stationed in the Middle East on anti-terrorism duty.

On Monday during Question Period, opposition parties questioned the Prime Minister on whether dispatching the Iroquois on Monday was a way to participate in the war through "the back door."

"Will will the government admit it has already agreed to contribute to military action in Iraq through back channels?" asked Francine Lalonde of the Bloc Québécois.

"The answer is no," Prime Minister Chrétien replied.

"We are taking the greater responsibilities at this time in Afghanistan. And the decision to send a ship to that area was made a few weeks ago. It was in the context of the role that we will be playing to establish peace and a civil society in Afghanistan," Mr. Chrétien said.

NDP MP Alexa McDonough accused the Prime Minister of "ensuring" that Canadian troops could become participants in war by sending the Iroquois to the Middle East.

Mr. Chrétien said Canada has already had ships in that area for a year.

Some of the Iroquois crew members said they were prepared for the sudden depature.

Able seaman Jason Mills, on his first major deployment since joining the Navy a year and a half ago is eager to get to sea.

"I was going through basic training when the Iroquois went last time. I didn't think it would happen so quickly," he said. "I'd rather we go now all of a sudden, because I didn't want to sit around and wait until July. My daughter's first day of school is in September, so I'm hoping to get back in time to see it."

Chief of Defence Staff General Raymond Henault told the crew that the deployment will probably be for six months.

"We will do whatever we have to do to ensure you are supported as you would need to be to accomplish your mission," he told the crew before the destroyer left port.

While the sailors and air crews on the ship shrugged off questions about potential dangers posed by a possible war on Iraq, families on shore were apprehensive.

In the past 10 days, the crew members and their families had to psychologically prepare for another six month departure and perform mundane tasks such as fill out automobile registration and power of attorney forms.

Leslie Taylor and her sons Jamie, 8, and Greg, 5, waved from the docks as her husband, Master Seaman Steve Taylor, promised to send e-mails and then had to head for his duties on the ship.

Ms. Taylor said she suspected the Iroquois would be called back to duty, but the quick turn-around only 10 months after her husband had returned from the Gulf was a bit of a shock.

"I'm worried about this time as well. What's going to happen and when? How long will it take?" she asked. "You instantly become a single mother and if you don't know everything you have to soon learn it."

With a report from Allison Dunfield