Iraq crisis: Take your finger off the trigger, says Moscow

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The Independent Online
The United States and Russia disagreed sharply yesterday over the use of force against Iraq. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said the time for diplomacy had practically run out, while Moscow continues to search for a negotiated solution.

With a renewed air offensive against Iraq expected in two or three weeks, the US and Russia disagreed yesterday when Mrs Albright and Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister, met in Madrid.

Mrs Albright said, after a two-hour meeting at a VIP lounge at Baraja Airport, that she had received a report on Russia's latest diplomatic overtures to Baghdad and she believed that: "There is no concrete evidence Iraq is negotiating for anything but delay." Mr Primakov said: "This is only the beginning of the process. We need to continue."

Meanwhile, Iraq says it will not use weapons of mass destruction in any conflict. Abdel-Khaleq Abdul-Ghafur, the information minister, said: "Iraq will not use weapons of mass destruction for the simple reason that Iraq does not possess any of these weapons." He added that in the 1991 Gulf war, when Baghdad did have some chemical weapons, it did not use them.

Iraq has been giving foreign diplomats a tour of one of President Saddam Hussein's palaces, which are at the centre of the dispute between Iraq and United Nations weapons inspectors, the Iraqi News Agency reported yesterday. The tour of the palace 65 miles north of Baghdad was organised by the foreign ministry as part of Iraqi efforts to prove it has nothing to hide.

At the start of the confrontation with UN inspectors last autumn, Iraq opened several of the palaces to Iraqis who promised to act as human shields against an attack by the US, a tactic it could repeat. At one presidential complex in Baghdad four bronze statues of Saddam stood atop two new palaces. A nearly 100-foot- high dome dominated a reception hall.

In the event of what, in effect, would be a second round of the Gulf war, such palaces would probably be attacked with bombs and missiles. But it is unclear if this would do much to damage President Saddam politically at home and weaken his grip on power. Nor would it necessarily destroy the biological and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them which the UN inspectors have been trying to locate. It might, however, lead Iraq to permanently expel the UN weapons inspectors.

In a separate development Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said yesterday in Davos, Switzerland, that he would propose to the Security Council improvements for Baghdad in its oil-for-food deal, which currently earns Iraq $2bn (pounds 1.25bn) every six months. Mr Annan did not say when the report would be submitted.

Out of the $2bn earned every six months at the moment some $1.3bn is used by Iraq to buy food, medicine and essential goods under tight control by the UN. This may be doubled under a new scheme, though Iraq's ability to export more oil is limited by lack of spare parts for its oil industry and pumping stations.