Iraq crisis: Cook seeks to head off MPs' revolt

The Government is planning a full-scale debate next week to show a united front at the House of Commons and crush opposition to the threat of a renewed bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein's military might in Iraq.

Robin Cook gave a clear signal in the Commons that air strikes would be targeted at Saddam's Republican Guard in an attempt to destroy his military support and bring about the overthrow of the Iraqi leader.

The strongest call for action during a statement in the Commons came from John Major, the Prime Minister at the time of the Gulf War, who attacked Saddam as a "psychopath" and urged the allies to target the Republican Guard who had sustained the Iraqi leader in power.

"Saddam has kept himself in power through fear and force," the Foreign Secretary said. "He should be under no illusion that if military action is taken, that power which keeps him in power will be hit hard."

Mr Cook wants the Commons debate to show a united, cross-party alliance in support of the threatened action against Iraq, and The Independent has learned that Mr Cook has asked the Leader of the House, Ann Taylor, to arrange an emergency debate next Tuesday in the Commons.

The Foreign Secretary is keen to use a vote in favour of action to increase the pressure on Saddam to back down, and to snuff out opposition, in spite of signs of a coalition at Westminster between left-wing Labour MPs and hard right Tories, who want to destroy Saddam, but share the scepticism of General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded the British forces in the Gulf War, about the military objectives of renewed air strikes.

"There is an unholy alliance between the left and the Tory right wing," said one prominent left-winger.

Ministerial sources said Mr Cook is keen to show that the vast majority of MPs on both sides of the House supported the action.

A member of the Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs estimated that only about 20 Labour MPs will vote against the Government, and they are not expecting any Tory MPs to rebel.

Mr Cook last week privately met leading left-wing dissidents, including Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, and George Galloway, who accused Mr Cook of "outstorming Norman Schwarzkopf", the commander of the allied forces in the Gulf War, known as "Stormin' Norman".

The Tory leader, William Hague, has pledged his support to Tony Blair for action, if it is necessary, but Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned that there was a danger of conflicting signals from the Government about the objectives of military action "ending in uncertainty".

Few MPs believed the opinion poll showing the public in favour of action. One Tory MP said: "I was on a phone-in show at the weekend and nearly everyone was against it."

There are also signs of a split between Britain and America over the strategy of returning to the United Nations for a fresh resolution to carry out the air raids. Mr Cook said the action was covered by existing UN resolutions, but he appeared to leave open the option of seeking a fresh mandate, backed by Japan, which the US is against.

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