Iraq crisis: Time running out for diplomacy as a huge force takes shape in the Gulf

Saddam seeks to enlist Syria to his cause
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The Independent Online
AS BRITAIN and the United States racheted up the pressure further, Saddam Hussein moved to enlist Syria into a broadening Arab "anti-military strike" bloc, hostile to any use of force against Iraq in the crisis over United Nations access to suspected weapons plants.

Nothing better illustrates the difference between today and the Gulf War of seven years ago than yesterday's talks in Baghdad between the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, and Iraqi Foreign Minister, Saeed al-Sahaf - the first meeting at so high a level between the two former rivals in almost a decade.

In 1991 Syria and Egypt took part in Operation Desert Storm which drove President Saddam out of Kuwait. Today both (as well as Iraq's previous sympathiser Jordan) are opposed to the massive air assault on Iraqi targets which, if Western rhetoric is taken at face value, seems well nigh certain within the coming days or weeks. This time Saudi Arabia is not making its bases available and even the smaller Gulf states which may secretly relish the prospect of another bloody lesson for President Saddam, are careful not to say so publicly.

But the Anglo-American alliance was talking tougher than ever yesterday. As Foreign Secretary Robin Cook warned the Commons that President Saddam's latest offers fell "well short" of what was required to end the crisis, America's UN ambassador ruled out "any deals or compromises" on the inspection issue.

With those words, Bill Richardson dismissed the implicit suggestion from the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, that some diplomatic fudging might be required. Baghdad had painted itself into a corner, Mr Annan told the BBC, "but we should not insist on humiliating them". For the time being however, humiliation seems exactly what Washington has in mind. If President Saddam "does not comply with the will of the international community, we must be prepared to act", President Bill Clinton reiterated last night.

To bolster the threat, the Administration claims it is successfully forging a war coalition of its own. At a stop in Qatar yesterday during his current tour of the region, the US Defense Secretary William Cohen declared that a "coalition is building" - a statement based on the agreement by the United Arab Emirates and Oman to allow US tanker aircraft to use their bases in support of an attack on Iraq.

But the guts of that "coalition" remain almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon and "White Old Commonwealth", Australia and Canada having now given their blessing for military action. Within the European Union, only Germany and Holland are in favour of air strikes to punish President Saddam. Russia, China and France, the three other members of the Security Council, are all opposed.

The comparative lack of international support for Washington and London is the main reason why, against the odds, a diplomatic solution may yet be found. Mr Cohen adamantly denied the US was in the grip of "war fever", while the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, said that though the chances of a peaceful settlement were fading, France was "not discouraged" by developments.

For their part, the UN, Russia and the Arab countries vow to pursue every possible diplomatic avenue. Mr Annan says he is ready to go to Baghdad to broker a deal, if the outline of one emerges in the next few days.

"If we maintain fundamentalist positions all round, we will not find a solution," he told the BBC.

Even before the shooting war begins however, it is having military repercussions. Turkish troops were reportedly fighting Kurdish guerrillas in a part of Northern Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein - apparently to forestall any mass influx of Kurdish refugees if the US attacks in the south.