Air strikes on hold as Baghdad concedes

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THE UNITED States and Britain last night drew away from a military showdown with Saddam Hussein, despite their continuing doubts about the chances of a lasting deal with Baghdad and an increasing desire to have the Iraqi leader removed.

As United Nations weapons inspectors prepared last night to return to Iraq, the US and Britain warned Baghdad the crisis was not over, and massive air strikes remained on the table if it failed to co-operate fully. Washington also gave a first public signal that its goal was not only to get rid of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, but also President Saddam.

Speaking after 24 hours which had taken the West to the brink of an armed onslaught against Baghdad, the US President, Bill Clinton, claimed victory, insisting Western pressure had forced President Saddam to back down. He added: "That is not enough. Now Iraq must live up to its obligations."

Mr Clinton laid out five conditions to this end: President Saddam had to settle all outstanding issues with the inspectors; allow "unfettered" access to all sites; hand over all documents; accept all UN resolutions, and cease interfering with the independence and professionalism of the inspectors.

But Mr Clinton went further still, vowing that the US would intensify its efforts to secure a new government in Iraq that was "committed to peace".

His words could portend a shift in strategy, away from the weapons inspections mechanism which allows President Saddam to provoke a crisis when he chooses, towards one aimed at undermining the Iraqi leader's power, either directly or by stepping up help to opposition groups.

Thus has ended - for the time being at least - the most dramatic confrontation between Baghdad and the Western allies since the 1991 Gulf War, in which Washington and London on Saturday halted a bombardment by cruise missiles and strike aircraft on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities and military sites, just hours before it was due to start. "It was close, very close," said William Cohen, the US Secretary of Defense.

Washington dismissed a first offer by President Saddam to allow the weapons inspectors back, calling it "as full of holes as a Swiss cheese".

But after two further missives from Baghdad to the UN Security Council and further statements by senior Iraqi officials, President Clinton grudgingly agreed to give his foe the benefit of the doubt.

During Saturday, Tony Blair talked eight times by phone with Mr Clinton and top US officials, before finally snatching some sleep at 5am yesterday.

After Iraq edged back from the brink, the Prime Minister echoed President Clinton's warning: the crisis would not end unless "absolute and unconditional compliance is guaranteed and delivered". Britain remained "ready, willing and able" to attack Iraq without warning.

In the aborted wave of attacks, RAF Tornados would have provided 20 per cent of the manned aircraft, alongside F-117 Stealth bombers and giant B-52 bombers, as well as some 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the air and from the small armada of American warships in the Gulf.

When the first "unconditional" Iraqi offer came through, Mr Blair, like Mr Clinton, had already signed off on the impending assault.

Now, the official Anglo-American game plan is to have the inspectors return as quickly as possible - they can be back on the ground in Iraq in 24 hours. At the first hint of impediment in their work, the bombs and missiles will be unleashed without warning.

In fact, London and Washington are boxed in. For all their suspicion that President Saddam may be wriggling off the hook again, they have little choice but to hold off, while the Iraqi dictator again can use Unscom, the UN body charged with searching out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, to trigger a crisis whenever he chooses - indeed many analysts expect another within months.

What has happened is almost a carbon copy of events of last February, when Iraq defied the UN and then pulled back after a deal was brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General. It has left the US frustrated yet unable to do anything else but accept the deal.

Once Russia, France and China accepted the first offer, it became all but impossible for the US to proceed with military action unless it was prepared to confront three other permanent members of the UN Security Council. In the Arab world, unhappy at the snail's pace of progress towards a Palestinian settlement, a unilateral assault would be branded naked aggression.

The Iraqi media predictably claimed its own victory. President Saddam's decision had "pulled the rug from under the feet of the American administration", which it accused of "distorting the facts". Victory after victory until we overcome sanctions," the official Ba'ath party newspaper trumpeted.

Gulf crisis, pages 4 and 5

Robert Fisk, Review, page 4