Iraq Crisis: Plan of attack puts diplomacy on a deadline

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The Independent Online
Diplomatic efforts to avert a renewal of the Gulf war reached a critical point yesterday, with Iraq showing itself willing for the first time to allow the inspection of eight of President Saddam Hussein's palaces. In Washington, planners are focusing on 17 February as the best date to launch an air offensive against the Iraqi government.

The argument for that date appears to have less to do with having enough aircraft and missiles in position than the need for the United States and Britain to be seen to have exhausted diplomatic means to resolve the crisis over the inspection of Iraq's non-conventional weapons. The US has already said the assault will target chemical and biological-weapons facilities, command-and-control centres and Republican Guard units.

In Iraq, there are signs that President Saddam may want to compromise over access to eight of his palaces. Baghdad has proposed that each of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council would appoint five inspectors; the 21 countries represented on the UN Special Commission (Unscom), which oversees the weapons inspections, would each appoint two more. They would be allowed to bring what equipment they wanted and inspect each palace for a month.

The US and Britain will suspect this offer of seeking to marginalise Unscom, which they are demanding should have unfettered access. There are signs both sides are behaving cautiously. Brent Scowcroft, US national security adviser during the Gulf war, said he was doubtful if even a big air strike would persuade the Iraqi leader to allow inspections: "We bombed him heavily, more heavily than we can now ... and he didn't change his ideas about anything." More visceral advice came from Trent Lott, US Senate Majority Leader: "Take out every target and hope that you can put one missile down at an event or a building where Saddam Hussein is."

The US and Britain have denied they intend bringing down the Iraqi leader, but his enemies will ask if sustained bombing could lead to his overthrow. Laith Kubba, an Iraqi intellectual, says: "They have a slight chance to break the grip of the regime on the army. But ... I don't think they will do it. Their objective is to see Saddam comply with UN resolutions, not destroy him."

In November last year President Saddam compromised at the last moment and readmitted US inspectors; he might do so again. His aim would be to weary the US and its allies by repeated crises. Mr Kubba says Iraq, in contrast with its behaviour, accepted the new oil-for-food plan of Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, more than doubling oil exports to $5.2bn every six months. He concludes: "The signals are Iraq wants to defuse, not escalate the crisis."