Iraq crisis: Cabinet gives Blair backing for an attack

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR yesterday secured Cabinet backing for war in the Gulf after dismissing Saddam Hussein's offer of a compromise over United Nations inspections of presidential palaces as "completely hopeless".

A Cabinet source told The Independent that there was no dissent within the Cabinet, and there was a feeling that war was now inevitable. "No one spoke against it. Force is the only thing that may move Saddam."

Mr Blair's official spokes-man said: "The Prime Minister set out that should it go to military action, it was important that every effort was made to ensure that civilian life was not harmed.

"He believed we have the technology and that any military action could be carried out in a way to avoid that and any environmental catastrophe."

But the Cabinet is braced to withstand public protests over the possible civilian casualties. "There may be so-called `collateral' damage, which means civilians will get killed. Saddam is absolutely ruthless and he won't care if his own people are killed. He has killed his own people before," the Cabinet source said.

The Cabinet was given an outline briefing on the targets including the palaces and President Saddam's Republican Guard by the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson.

To prepare public opinion for the war, Downing Street emphasised that the palaces President Saddam refuses to open to proper scrutiny by UN arms inspection teams are not historic monuments, but military bases, including one as big as Paris.

Mr Blair told the Cabinet that President Saddam had offered to allow the UN teams into the palaces but only for one inspection. "That is absolutely hopeless," he said.

The Prime Minister made it clear that he would lead a concerted propaganda campaign to counter the anti-war protests with details of the Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The spokesman said: "He said people have to realise these weapons aren't a theoretical, abstract threat. He was saying to ministers that when they are out and about talking to journalists and colleagues and making speeches and so on, that we have to be constantly explaining why this is so serious."

Mr Blair pointed out to the Cabinet that there had been occasions when inspection teams had only uncovered weapons on their fourth visit. Mr Robertson reinforced Mr Blair's message by briefing the Cabinet on United States aerial spy photographs showing that the Iraqis moved weapons material around the bases in convoys of lorries, when inspection teams arrived.

He drew the attention of the Cabinet to newspaper articles warning that the threat was not theoretical but real, and that Iraq had developed several germs and toxins for weapons, including anthrax, botulinum, and the nerve gas, Agent 15. He said everybody was working flat out to try to get a diplomatic solution and that remained the objective, but he said the Government had to get more facts on President Saddam's arsenals.

Reporting on the diplomatic efforts, in the absence of the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who is in Panama, Mr Blair said that contrary to the impression given in the newspapers, there was greater support lining up for the strategy against Iraq than had been reported.