Blair hawkish on Iraq

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THE Prime Minister yesterday promised full backing to US military action against Iraq, as the Americans stepped up pressure on Saddam Hussein.

With air strikes expected within weeks, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, in London for a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said the two countries stood "shoulder to shoulder" in their assessment that Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions over access for arms inspection teams was unacceptable.

Ms Albright said she was "sceptical" whether more talking would solve the crisis. "The time for diplomacy is fast expiring."

Privately the British government still hopes its message will filter through to Baghdad and that Saddam, no stranger to brinkmanship, will concede. But Mr Blair and Mr Cook made it clear that Britain will back US military action if it is necessary.

Pressure is mounting in Washington for a military response. Mr Blair told the inaugural meeting of Labour's National Policy Forum in London that the international community had a duty to thwart Saddam's military ambitions. He said: "It is vital for us all to stop this evil dictator hanging on to his remaining weapons of mass destruction or acquiring more." Mr Cook said: "We want to leave Saddam Hussein with no doubt of our resolve to win this struggle."

Ms Albright said no decision to use military force had been made, and all options were being kept open. But both she and Mr Cook agreed that the time was "fast approaching" for fundamental decisions to be made.

She said: "We have made it clear we want to pursue a diplomatic course as long as it is possible, but the diplomatic opening is narrowing."

Eight Labour MPs opposed to military action, including Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell, will meet Mr Cook tomorrow at the Commons to voice their concerns about the possibility of a military strike. Mr Dalyell, a long- standing campaigner against sanctions on Iraq, said he could see little point in an air campaign and added: "I don't believe that air strikes without ground troops are other than counterproductive."

Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded British forces during the Gulf War, said he believed intelligence probably was available about where the weapons were being stored. But air strikes would not necessarily be entirely effective.