Albright and Cook move close to point of no return

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Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright both stepped up their rhetoric offensive on Iraq yesterday, as the prospect of real military action approached. Anthony Bevins and Andrew Marshall report.

The brutality of the Iraqi regime was so great that they had shot 1,200 long-term prisoners to solve a problem of prison overcrowding, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, alleged yesterday.

He told the BBC television Breakfast with Frost programme that he had no intelligence to suggest that chemical or biological weapons could be used in retaliatory terrorist attacks on the United Kingdom; that was much more likely in Middle East countries.

But Mr Cook added that there was a real risk involved. "It is a very real point that if he [Saddam Hussein] acquires these chemical and biological agents, he doesn't necessarily have to deliver them ... by military attack," he said. "It could be ... delivered in a terrorist manner by people travelling through the area ...

"Do remember we are dealing with a very brutal, even psychopathic regime. In the last two months, they decided that their prisons were overcrowded. They solved that by taking out every prisoner with over 15 years of a sentence, and shooting them ... A government that behaves with that kind of brutality in its own country is not a government you can leave in possession of these terror weapons."

The comments of Mr Cook, and of Madeleine Albright, his US colleague, show that the rhetoric offensive against Iraq is gearing up. "Will it be substantial, will it be sustained, will it be heavy?" a television interviewer asked the US Secretary of State yesterday. "It will be all those things," she responded.

The military preparation is also escalating. Western defence sources in Kuwait said that British support aircraft had started arriving in Kuwait on Saturday with spare parts and support equipment for eight British Tornado bombers which are due to deploy in Kuwait today. Six US F-117A stealth bombers are also due in Kuwait which has agreed in principle to allow Western aircraft to operate from its territory.

But there are serious doubts about support outside London and Washington for any attacks.

Ms Albright said she was confident of support from Saudi Arabia. "I have confidence and trust that the Saudi government will support us if force is necessary," she said. But the Arab News quoted Prince Sultan, the Saudi Defence Minister, as saying that his country was much more critical of the move: "We'll not agree and we are against striking Iraq as a people and as a nation."

William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary, is due to meet King Fahd this week during a tour of six Gulf states.

Mr Cook said the statement of Saudi opposition would be studied with care. "We are not asking Saudi Arabia for the capacity to mount strike aircraft from Saudi Arabia," the Foreign Secretary said. "I don't know that there's that much difference in principle between us," he added. "I mean, I don't want to strike Iraq; I want an outcome which enables inspectors to get on with their vital job of stopping Saddam developing these arsenals of terror."

Tony Benn, the former Labour Cabinet minister, said yesterday that any massive air attack on Iraq would isolate London and Washington from the majority of world opinion, and would have the gravest consequences.

"Despite all that has been said about attempts to find a diplomatic solution," he said, "no American, or British minister has gone to Baghdad, unlike the Russian, French, Turkish and other governments, who have sent senior ministers for talks there." Mr Benn himself yesterday sent an appeal to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, asking him to explore possible solutions to the crisis.

He asked whether, if all UN sanctions, except for military equipment, were lifted at once, Iraq could immediately agree to allow UN inspectors to operate freely in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution.

The US has given no time limit for Saddam Hussein to comply with its demands, though The Independent reported last week that 17 February was a likely date. Asked how much time Saddam had to comply fully with UN resolutions, Ms Albright said: "It's not days and it's not months - it's in the weeks category. We want to make sure that we have explored all the diplomatic options."