Blair sends carrier to the Gulf

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN IS sending HMS Invincible to the Gulf as part of a new strategy to keep Saddam Hussein firmly "in his cage" Tony Blair announced yesterday.

The Prime Minister warned that Britain and the United States were ready to launch more bombing raids on Iraq. "Our forces will remain ready to strike if necessary, if he again poses a threat to his neighbours or develops weapons of mass destruction," he said.

British ministers claimed the four-day Operation Desert Fox, which was called off late on Saturday, had set back President Saddam's military capabilities by at least a year.

Mr Blair sought to head off criticism that the military strikes were pointless because President Saddam remained in power. "Just because we can't get in the cage and strike him down, it doesn't mean we should leave the cage untouched and the bars too fragile to hold him. What we have done is put him back in secure and firmly in the cage. He is weaker and therefore the region is stronger."

Hinting at the mounting of further operations in the world's troublespots, Mr Blair detected "the first stirrings of a new global reality" in which force was used to maintain peace. "The sooner and quicker you act, the easier it is to act and the less costly it is in terms of life, expense and diplomacy," he said.

The Prime Minister hit back at criticism that President Bill Clinton had attacked Iraq in an attempt to prevent his impeachment, and suggestions that he was "Clinton's poodle". "I would never, ever commit British servicemen and women unless I thought it necessary."

But Lord Healey, the former Labour defence secretary, warned that Mr Blair's actions had done him "no good", and had enormously weakened Britain's influence in Russia and China, the Middle East and European Union.

General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded Britain's forces in the 1990-91 Gulf War, warned that the latest aerial attacks would strengthen President Saddam's position in Iraq."You cannot bomb people into submission; it tends to make them defiant. I think there is a considerable risk this will happen, not just in Iraq but across the Islamic world," he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.

The Opposition, which supported Operation Desert Fox last week, cast doubt over Mr Blair's actions last night, calling on him to spell out his future strategy. "We must not now allow a policy vacuum to develop," said Michael Howard, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

RAF Tornados in Kuwait will remain on "high alert" until HMS Invincible arrives in the Gulf next month. George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said: "It is a big signal: we are not going away, we remain vigilant." The "floating fortress" can mount air and land attacks, and carries up to 24 aircraft - usually a mix of Sea Harrier FA2 fighters, RAF Harrier GR7 bombers and Sea King helicopters. It has a crew of 1,200 men and women.

This "containment" of President Saddam forms the first plank in a four- point plan outlined by Mr Blair yesterday. The second is to make the trade sanctions against Iraq more rigorous - including reinforced operations in the Gulf to intercept suspect traffic.

The Prime Minister called for a "more effective arrangement" than the deal allowing President Saddam to sell oil to buy food and medicines, so it was less susceptible to poor performance by the Iraqi authorities or manipulation by the President for his own ends.

Part three is a diplomatic offensive to bring about "stability" in relations between Iraq and the international community. British ministers, led by Mr Blair and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will hold urgent talks with Middle East and EU states and UN Security Council members.

Finally, the Prime Minister called for an "effective inspection and monitoring regime". But he admitted that the Unscom inspection team could not return for the same "cat and mouse" game and the same recurring crises. "We would need a new and better regime," he said.