Cook tries to plug Iraq sanctions gap

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THE FOREIGN Secretary, Robin Cook, and other Foreign Office ministers will be fanning out across Middle East and Gulf countries over the next fortnight to persuade them to increase pressure on President Saddam Hussein by clamping down on Iraq's large-scale smuggling in defiance of international sanctions.

The move seems to confirm that for all the belligerent talk against Baghdad since the Iraqi President's latest decision to end all co-operation with United Nations arms inspectors, the West does not contemplate using military force - at this stage of the crisis at least.

Explaining the thinking behind the diplomatic offensive yesterday, Mr Cook argued that Iraq was making no effort to use the full oil export quota of $10bn (pounds 6.1bn) allowed it by the UN to buy food and medicine. He said President Saddam "prefers to smuggle oil out to get illegal receipts of currency" to boost pay for the Republican Guard, provide a lavish lifestyle for his entourage and pursue the development of chemical and biological weapons.

Denying that Western sanctions were simply producing hardship and deprivation for ordinary Iraqis, Mr Cook said that President Saddam's regime had been exporting maize and wheat even as it claimed children were malnourished. On the medical side, "Iraq had been importing liposuction equipment and silicone breast implants, all the while claiming it can't afford to buy medicines".

The new gambit comes amid a flurry of activity by top United States officials to drum up support for Washington's policies. A lightning tour by the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, of nine Middle Eastern countries culminating yesterday in a meeting with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, is to be followed by a mission to Europe this weekend by President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger.

But there are clear indications that US allies in the Gulf have no more stomach for military action than last February, when an 11th-hour agreement between Saddam and the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, averted American and British air strikes.

The Pentagon last night declared that Mr Cohen had held "successful consultations" in the region. But Mr Clinton himself could only trot forth the hope that "we'll have the support we need for whatever decisions we ultimately make". As in February, moreover, Russia signalled its opposition yesterday to the use of force.

Thus the repeat in New York of familiar diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN. Last night, the Security Council was considering a British-US draft resolution, condemning Iraq's latest behaviour as a "flagrant violation", and demanding immediate and unconditional compliance with agreements it had signed.

In fact, however, the resolution contains no threat of force, and does not go as far as last February's, which spoke of "the severest consequences" if Baghdad did not allow UN inspectors unimpeded access to the sites where President Saddam is suspected of building his weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, however, still insists on a clear-cut timetable for the lifting of sanctions before it renews co-operation with the inspectors.

Mr Cook could not specify the extent of the smuggling by Iraq, which he said was being conducted by sea and across land borders, especially via Jordan. But he said "substantial sums" were involved.

The burden of his argument in Middle Eastern capitals this month will be that Western actions are not aimed at Arab countries. Strenuously though Mr Cook denied it yesterday, a whiff of double standards is in the air - with Iraq being held to strict UN resolutions while Israel blithely ignores them. But it was "grotesque" to compare "democratic debate" in Israel to the situation in Iraq, he said.

President Saddam retained the capacity to build chemical and biological weapons, and had managed to load a nerve gas weapon into a missile warhead. "The evidence is there before us, and we cannot walk away. Given his past record, he'll use these weapons," Mr Cook said.