Iraq: Cook stands apart from hawkish US

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK yesterday exposed the divisions between Britain and the United States by refusing to rule out more diplomatic efforts to avert war against Iraq, while Washington was adopting a more hawkish approach to the Kofi Annan peace mission.

Britain is expected to call for more time to reach a diplomatic solution today when the United Nations Secretary-General reports back to the Security Council, although the US could press for action after the failure to get Saddam Hussein to sign any agreement.

The Foreign Secretary's determination to exhaust diplomatic efforts before resorting to force also showed up the differences within the Government in spite of repeated denials.

Mr Cook said that the UN Secretary-General would be the "last serious envoy" to visit Baghdad in the crisis, but left open the possibility of more diplomatic efforts. "Last chance is a very big phrase. I wouldn't wish to say when Kofi Annan comes back that is it," Mr Cook said on BBC radio.

But George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, echoed the more hawkish US and Downing Street line on GMTV. "Time is running out for Saddam and obviously this is a make-or-break meeting," he said.

The Independent has learnt that the differences go beyond Mr Cook to the heart of the Foreign Office over Tony Blair's unequivocal support for Bill Clinton's foreign policy on Iraq. A senior government source said: "It is not about personalities. It is not a split between Robin and the Prime Minister. Robin is reflecting the view in the Foreign Office. There is a difference between the Foreign Office and No 10, but it's mainly about the nuances."|

The Foreign Office is anxious about the disastrous effects a war with Iraq will have on Britain's relations in the Gulf region. Some of Britain's friends, including Saudi Arabia, with whom Britain has multi-billion pound arms contracts, have refused to allow their air bases to be used this time for strikes on Iraq by Allied forces, although they were used in the Gulf war.

Mr Cook also suggested that he would not object to President Saddam tying "buttons and bows" to the deal, providing the bottom line was agreed in writing to allow Unscom to get back to work in stopping him developing biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

"If Saddam negotiates for buttons and bows to be tied around that package that is something we can live with. I am myself not particularly fussed with where the commas go."

Mr Cook said Mr Annan had scope to reach a deal within the bottom line agreed by the five permanent members of the security council that Unscom should be able to return to its work. "The central point is that Unscom has control of its operations, not Saddam," he said.

He denied that there were differences between himself and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, over a plan to reach a compromise by allowing Unscom inspection teams to be accompanied by diplomats, a so-called "Unscom-plus suits" option. "Our thinking is very much the same. It is claimed that she is against Unscom plus. I think it was Madeleine who invented the phrase 'Unscom plus'. What we can't settle for is Unscom minus," he said.

Mr Blair spoke to Mr Annan by telephone on Saturday night urging him to impress on President Saddam "the importance of Iraq being brought back into line" with UN security council resolutions to destroy his weapons of mass destruction.

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