Iraq Crisis: Cook seeks Gulf states backing for action against Saddam

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook tried yesterday to persuade leaders in the Gulf to back tough action against Saddam Hussein. Steve Crawshaw in Riyadh says he achieved some success after Saudi Arabia warned of dire consequences if Baghdad blocks UN inspectors' access to suspected chemical weapons sites.

The Foreign Secretary signalled that Britain's determination to embark on military action if necessary would not be deflected easily. "Saddam Hussein should not underestimate our resolve," Mr Cook said after talks with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud. Mr Cook's talks in Saudi Arabia and later yesterday in Kuwait - where he met the Emir of Kuwait - followed hard on the heels of a similar visit by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, whose message he had come to repeat and reinforce. "I am not in competition with Madeleine," he said.

In Baghdad, however, in what appeared a move to encourage Arabs to stiffen opposition to threatened air strikes, the Iraqi leader announced that all Arab prisoners would be freed "no matter what the crime". The number of prisoners and their nationalities was not immediately known, though it would presumably include all remaining Kuwaiti prisoners from the Gulf War. Kuwait says hundreds of its citizens are still missing from Iraq's 1990 invasion and seven-month occupation of the emirate.

The Saudis until now have been cautious about the impact of air strikes. As the Saudi daily, Arab News, noted yesterday: "The danger is that US- led military action could give the Iraqi leader the kind of victory he is looking for. Let one bomb miss its target and kill civilians and the regime will have a propaganda coup with television pictures of the victims." But Mr Cook argued that the use of military force would damage the Iraqi leader. "Saddam Hussein should not be under any illusions. If there is military action, it will be serious military action - and he will be hit hard ... he therefore has more interest than anybody else in finding a diplomatic solution. He should do so while he still has time."

The Saudis came closer than ever before to supporting possible military action. The statement from the foreign ministry said the Iraqi regime would bear responsibility for the "dire consequences" if there was a "failure to reach a diplomatic solution".

Most dramatically, the Saudis warned of the potential break-up of Iraq if President Saddam refuses to compromise. They insisted on the need for "unconditional compliance" with United Nations Security Council resolutions and argued that the UN resolutions constituted "the only way to end the suffering of the Iraqi people and preserve Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity". That is as much a fear as a threat. Saudi Arabia sees the break-up of Iraq as a nightmare scenario, with implications for stability throughout the region.

Mr Cook described the latest Iraqi proposals for ending the crisis as "interesting", but he insisted that they did not go far enough. In talks with the Russian special envoy to Baghdad, the Iraqis have suggested that UN inspectors will be allowed to visit 45 requested sites. But the terms of the offer remain unclear - for example, whether the visits would only be a one-off, and who would carry out the inspections.

Mr Cook said any proposals would have to be in writing: "There's a long way to go yet. United Nations inspectors must be free to carry out their inspections without conditions, and no sites labelled as out of bounds." The Foreign Secretary spoke for half-an-hour on the telephone to his Russian opposite number, Yevgeny Primakov, about Moscow's attempts to broker a deal with Baghdad. Mr Primakov's main message was: "Give me time."

Boris Yeltsin said yesterday that the worst was over in the Iraq crisis, though he repeated his warning, made on Wednesday, that a US military strike could lead to a world war.

The Saudis and Kuwaitis argue that they know better than most about the arsenal of terror, as documented by the UN inspection team. Britain is working on the tabling next week of a United Nations Security Council resolution, as a final non-military ratcheting up of the pressure on Iraq.