Clinton under pressure to delay Iraq strike

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The Independent Online
With the US Congress divided over military action against Iraq, the American public unprepared and the military unconvinced, the White House was under pressure yesterday to defer an aerial strike and redouble efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse with President Saddam Hussein. Washington's hopes increasingly rest on a mission to Baghdad by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

Officials in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow, as well as their representatives in the UN Security Council, were in urgent and constant communication yesterday, struggling to come up with a mandate for Mr Annan on which they could all agree.

While sources close to the negotiations in Washington said it was likely that Mr Annan would travel to Baghdad, alternative diplomatic routes having all but reached a dead end, such a mission was not perceived to be risk- free.

Mr Annan could achieve a breakthrough; he could return to New York empty- handed; but the worst outcome, according to the sources, would be for him to reach an agreement with President Saddam that would be unacceptable to Britain and America. In such an event the divisions within the UN would become wider and more acrimonious.

"If the Secretary-General goes to Baghdad," said a source, "he must do so with a mandate constrained by the sharp red lines set down down by those parties with forces on the ground."

Yet those in the US camp who are drawing the red lines acknowledge that the gap is wide between the political objectives sought by Washington and London and the military possibilities on the ground.

A US officer quoted in the New York Times said he doubted any air plan that would consist of just "putting holes in the desert". Far worse, other officers said, was the prospect of putting holes in Iraqi women and children. The mood in the US Congress, meanwhile, is hesitant. While the leaders of the two main parties state their support for the President, the rank and file, responding to the mood among a sceptical electorate, refused unanimously to support a resolution backing the use of force against Iraq.

Curt Weldon, a Republican on the House of Representatives National Security Committee, spoke for many colleagues when he said: "Joe Sixpack is not convinced about what we're doing over there."