British Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to meet US President George W. Bush in Washington later this month to discuss Iraq, sources said on Saturday, as Britain's top warship headed for the Gulf.
The two leaders would meet after UN arms inspectors report to the UN Security Council on Jan. 27 on Iraq's compliance with their searches for weapons of mass destruction, said the sources, who were familiar with US-British planning.
A spokeswoman for Blair's office would not confirm the trip.
British newspapers reported earlier that Blair was expected to meet both Bush and chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix in an effort to prevent an early war against Iraq becoming inevitable.
The Times said Blair would underscore his belief that the inspectors should be given "time and space" to deal with Iraq, but the two leaders could end up holding a "council of war" if Baghdad failed to give Blix answers to key questions.
An early edition of the Sunday Observer newspaper quoted unidentified officials from Blair's office as saying military action against Iraq was "more likely than not."
Asked about the Observer report, Blair's spokeswoman said: "We are saying that military action is not inevitable, but it is up to [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein how [disarmament] happens and whether it is done in conjunction with the United Nations or by absolute force."
Britain and the US say they have intelligence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and have threatened war if it fails to come clean. Iraq says it does not have such arms.
UN inspectors told the Security Council this week they had found no smoking guns in their searches in Iraq so far, but many questions still had to be answered by the Iraqis.
The flagship of Britain's navy, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, set sail on Saturday, heading the largest British seaborne force since the 1982 Falklands War.
The Ark Royal will lead a fleet of 16 ships, with 5,000 sailors and 3,000 marines.
Thousands of flag-waving relatives and well-wishers packed the quay for an emotional farewell as the carrier left England's southern Portsmouth harbor in chilly sunshine.
"I'm proud of him but still wish he wasn't in there," Felicity Devine said of her 26-year-old son Brad on the Ark Royal. "I know that God is in control and he'll be in my prayers," she said.
The Ark Royal's fleet is officially sailing for long-planned naval exercises in the Far East, but officials say they have strengthened the force in case it is needed for war against Iraq.
Public opinion in Britain is still lukewarm at best toward the prospect of war against Iraq, and the government has been cautious about announcing deployment plans. But since the start of the year Britain has begun deploying the bulk of the forces it would send for a war.
Several hundred anti-war activists met in London to voice opposition to military action in the Gulf.
The Stop The War Coalition, which organized Saturday's meeting, said about half a million protesters would gather in London on Feb. 15, together with 10 million across the rest of the world, in what could be the world's largest political demonstration.