Impeachment is put on hold as US prepares to strike Saddam

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN AND the United States were preparing to strike Iraq last night as the long-running confrontation over United Nations weapons inspectors threatened to boil over into full-scale war.

The prospect of war in the Gulf prompted congressional leaders to postpone "tentatively" today's vote on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Mr Clinton moved swiftly from discussion of his impending impeachment to a meeting with his security advisors at the White House to decide on military action.

The US said Iraq's refusal to allow the inspectors to search out what they believe are Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had precipitated the crisis.

"There is no end in sight for this pattern of obfuscation, obstruction or outright violation," said the US State Department spokesman, James Rubin.

"We can find no grounds for optimism that the Iraqi leadership, if left to its own devices, will suddenly change course and opt for cooperation in the new year, or, if it remains in power, in the new millennium."

The latest threats of military action follow a report from the chief United Nations weapons inspector, Richard Butler. He told the UN in a document released late on Tuesday night that despite promises that it would resume full cooperation with the UN, Iraq had failed to deliver.

When the US drew back from military action in mid-November, it threatened to strike without warning if Iraq broke its promises. After receiving the latest report, the US immediately advised the UN that it should withdraw the weapons inspectors - a sign that military action might be imminent - and at dawn yesterday they began pulling out to Bahrain.

President Clinton flew back late on Tuesday from the Middle East, where he had tried, fruitlessly, to persuade Israel to maintain compliance with the Wye peace accords. He arrived to find domestic support for his cause in the impeachment debate ebbing away, as one by one, moderate Republicans announced their intention to vote to impeach him.

Debate of the four articles of impeachment which was due to begin this morning may now begin at a later date, perhaps next week, but time is running out for this session of Congress as Christmas approaches.

The Administration denied strenuously that the clash had any connection with the President's problems. The timing had been set by Mr Butler's report, and by Iraq itself, spokesmen said. Indeed, they raised the prospect that Saddam Hussein may well have timed the confrontation to coincide with Mr Clinton's period of maximum weakness.

The last threatened clash coincided with the congressional elections, which Mr Clinton's Democrats had been expected to lose, but their strong showing gave him added momentum.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Sunday, may also influence the timing of military action.

The US has over 200 aircraft in the Gulf, a fleet of ships capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles and 15 B-52 bombers on the British island of Diego Garcia armed with cruise missiles. The US Navy alone has 300 such missiles in the region.

The US said in November that it planned a large-scale campaign of attacks, which were called off with just minutes to spare. They were aimed at sites where Iraq is suspected of building or storing weapons of mass destruction, but also at the political infrastructure of the nation.

Diplomatic support for the attacks was weak in November, and yesterday a number of nations made it clear they wanted some other outcome than military action.

A meeting of the United Nations Security Council was under way, where other powers were expected to mount a strong effort to persuade America against air strikes.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said he had contacted the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, in an attempt to head off military action.

"The use of force can only worsen the situation in the Gulf and the Middle East," he said. "Russia doesn't want that. Russia will do everything possible to avoid this happening."

France said yesterday that more time was needed. "Concerning Mr Butler's report, its content and the question it raises must be given in-depth study by the Security Council," the French Foreign Ministry, at the Quai D'Orsay, said in a statement. It is unlikely, however, that America will long be delayed by UN opposition. Neither Britain nor America believe they need additional legal authority to mount attacks.

"Given Iraq's manifest failure to cooperate over the last month, if we should choose to use force we would have the necessary legal authority," Tony Blair told the House of Commons yesterday.