Britain and US fear Saddam will be let off the hook

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The United States and Iraq both appeared keen yesterday to step back from the belligerent rhetoric of recent days. But Steve Crawshaw says Washington and London are still determined not to be seen as `going soft' on Saddam Hussein.

Britain rebuffed an attempted Iraqi compromise whereby some US weapons inspectors would be allowed back as part of a United Nations team. But the Foreign Office also spoke of "actively pursuing a diplomatic solution". British officials argued that the proposals by Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, "indicate an Iraqi willingness to move". Reassuring words are intended to persuade Iraq that sanctions will not stay in place for ever. There can, in other words, be "light at the end of the tunnel", despite Iraq's repeatedly expressed fears to the contrary. British officials talked of drawing "a road map with greater clarity" on how to get the sanctions lifted.

Part of the new-look map might be what US officials called "modest adjustments" to the oil-for-food programme. Under the current terms of the programme, Iraq can sell $2bn (pounds 1.25bn) of oil every six months, with the proceeds controlled by the UN.

Iraq has said that Americans can come back in if there are an equal number of inspectors from other permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, France, Russia, and China. But British officials warned yesterday that President Saddam cannot be allowed to "discriminate" regarding the make-up of a UN team. They said there must be a willingness to comply with UN resolutions, in particular readiness to open up all weapons facilities for inspection in order to prevent the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett, on a visit to Tokyo, argued: "I think that Saddam Hussein realises that he's gone a step too far and made a tactical mistake and is looking for a way that he can back down and save his face." The French President, Jacques Chirac, congratulated himself on the easing of the crisis: "I have a feeling that the points I made have contributed towards what has developed today, towards some form of detente," he said.

Oil prices fell yesterday, on the perception that the crisis has begun to ease. The French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, said military action "remains possible but is not certain". He said he was convinced the US seeks a diplomatic solution, "because the situation would perhaps not be fundamentally" changed by military action". Arab leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the prospect of military action against Iraq.

Britain has been the only country to have backed Washington almost to the hilt, in its desire to punish Saddam, come what may. British officials continued to emphasise that an iron fist was still contained within the softer new glove. The emphasis was still on "readiness to consider use of force if all other measures fail".

Britain and the US have been keen to argue that all sides are acting in unison against President Saddam. In reality, military action would put intolerable pressure on the anti-Saddam alliance. Criticism from France and Russia is now more muted only because both now believe military action is an unlikely option.

In Baghdad, President Saddam held a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council to discuss the stand-off. According to the official Iraqi news agency, "the political situation was discussed and the letters sent to the President from his brethren Arab presidents and monarchs were reviewed." Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, talked of Russia being "active in many different areas". He emphasised: "We will do everything to find an exit to this crisis through the path of peaceful political settlement."