Force would stir Middle East cauldron three decks

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A war against Saddam Hussein is more possible than at any time in the last seven years. Britain and the United States are keen to turn up the pressure and clearly will not shrink from military action. But such action does not just have implications for Saddam Hussein, argues Steve Crawshaw, recently in the Gulf.

It is the art of diplomacy: pretend that everybody agrees with you, even when they manifestly do not. Thus it was with Robin Cook in the Gulf this week. Even though France and Russia have repeatedly made clear their deep opposition to military action, Mr Cook was keen to imply that everybody is on board.

His standard line emphasises the fact that Britain is "leaving no diplomatic avenue unexplored". But if all else fails, he has repeatedly insisted, then blame will lie entirely with Saddam Hussein.

Mr Cook argued: "If we walk away from this and leave Saddam Hussein in possession of these weapons that could wipe out whole cities, then the prospect of war in the region is much greater than if we do use military force on this occasion."

On the one hand, it can all be seen as mere grandstanding by a superpower and an ex-superpower who both want to demonstrate their macho qualities. It is unfortunate that the United States is upping the ante against Saddam Hussein at a time when the US President has so many obvious reasons for wishing the spotlight to swing away from his personal life.

Britain is not merely Washington's poodle on this point. Standing up for principles is not merely a childish thing that grown-up countries learn to put away. France, Russia and China all have a mixture of commercial and political reasons for wishing to lay off Baghdad. Fear of bloodshed has less to do with it than wanting to stay on good terms with the regime. Britons still feel ashamed of actions by Neville Chamberlain that came as such a relief at the time; "peace in our time" is not necessarily something to be proud of. That is doubly true if the threat of force persuades a tyrant to back down.

Nevertheless, the consequences of military action against Iraq go well beyond reducing the threat of chemical and biological warfare being loosed upon the world. If Saddam Hussein is humiliated militarily, then that could spell an end to the Saddam regime. So far, so good. But, if the Saddam regime begins to crumble, then the chances of an uprising are high.

Iraq is, in the words of Robin Cook, a "lively coalition of different groups - the Kurds, the marsh Arabs and so forth". If those very disparate groups rebel, question marks hang over the survival of Iraq itself. And that is a prospect which fills Iraq's neighbours with horror.

Diplomats in Riyadh note the "growing sympathy" among Saudis for their Iraqi neighbours. Worries about Iraqi civilian suffering are real. None the less, the Saudis were as on-message as could have been hoped for, with a Cookian phrase about how Saddam must understand that if things go wrong, he will be the author of his own destruction.

For the Saudis and for others in the region, the potential disintegration of Iraq is a higher price to pay than the continuance in power of Saddam Hussein. Mr Cook, when addressing the same problem, sounded almost insouciant. He noted: "If Saddam were to be seriously undermined - in a way which we would welcome - there could be consequences in terms of the break-up of Iraq. They [Arab leaders] don't want to see that happen."

In London or Washington, the bringing to heel of a dictator seems a laudable aim. Among Iraq's neighbours, however, the destabilising implications are high on the agenda. It is an important divide. If this week's diplomatic huffing and puffing is successful, then Saddam will climb down off his pedestal without any military action. But if push comes to military shove, the knock-on effects will be enormous. The paradox remains: for some, Iraq ruled by a despot is the lesser evil, compared with a chaotic Iraq suffering from a vacuum of power. Wanting to be rid of Saddam is logical; but being worried about an Iraq without Saddam is logical, too.