Allies at odds over UN peace bid

US hawkish, but Cook hopes for compromise with Iraq; By Stephen Castle in London and Raymond Whitaker in Kuwait City
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SHARP differences between the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the United States over Iraq have threatened an Anglo-American split over the outcome of the UN Secretary General's mission to Baghdad this weekend.

While Kofi Annan was attempting to extract a peace deal from Saddam Hussein, in Washington it emerged that President Clinton had already approved a plan for massive air strikes on Iraq codenamed Desert Thunder.

And last night Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke by telephone with Mr Annan, urging him to impress on Saddam the need to comply fully with UN demands on weapons inspections.

The disagreement between Mr Cook and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, will be over the merits of any compromise proposal that averts the need for such attacks.

The dispute has arisen over"UNSCOM-plus-suits", a plan under which the UN inspection teams would be joined by diplomatic colleagues when the Iraqi dictator's palaces are examined.

Washington has cast this in a negative light, arguing the need for an absolute agreement from Saddam to comply with the UN injunction to admit inspectors, before talking practicalities. But Mr Cook argues the plan could provide the basis for a settlement.

The UK and US are also split on the desirability of a fresh UN resolution to justify military strikes. The Foreign Office is more anxious to secure wide backing, because it is concerned at the fragility of support for bombing Saddam. It is also plainly hoping for a clear-cut outcome from Mr Annan's visit - either acceptance by Saddam of the UN position or a flat rejection. A compromise could leave Britain isolated as a supporter of American military action in the Gulf.

The details should emerge on Tuesday, when Mr Annan returns to the UN in New York. Yesterday, he said he was "still optimistic" after 90 minutes of talks with Iraq's deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz. He plans to meet Saddam today.

In Washington there were signs of unease as the US capital witnessed an anti-war demon- stration. The State Department meanwhile advised US citizens to leave Iraq as soon as possible.

RAF Tornadoes at the Ali al-Salem base in Kuwait yesterday practised flying for the first time in desert conditions with the 2,000lb Paveway III laser-guided bomb, developed since the Gulf war to penetrate concrete bunkers. The destructive power of such weapons is shown at the base, attacked by the allies in 1991 to deny it to invading Iraqi forces. Its aircraft shelters have been blasted open by much smaller and less accurate bombs.

Another sign of preparation for possible imminent conflict is the arrival of American search and rescue helicopters.

Iraq crisis, pages 14-15

Annan profile, Section 2