Iraq sets a carefully planned collision course with the UN as co-operation withdrawn

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The Independent Online
IRAQ MOVED closer to confrontation with the United Nations yesterday when its parliament voted to support the decision to halt co-operation with United Nations weapons inspectors.

As the crisis escalated, Britain said it would support the use of force to make Iraq comply with UN resolutions.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "We are in no doubt that if the use of force is necessary, then that is the course that should be taken."

Baghdad is increasing the pressure on the UN Security Council and the United States, but is keeping its actions just below the threshold which it believes will provoke a military reaction. It allowed a UN team yesterday to maintain surveillance equipment at a weapons site in Iraq.

On Saturday, Iraq demanded that the Security Council review the sanctions that were imposed after the invasion of Kuwait eight years ago, and fire Richard Butler, the Australian head of the team overseeing the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The US is also showing caution. William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary, said Washington always had the option of taking unilateral military action but added: "We prefer to act through our allies and with our allies, if we have to take any action at all."

In the last confrontation with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, in February, the US and Britain were largely isolated in the Security Council.

"The preference is to keep it exactly where it is today, a contest between Iraq and the United Nations," Mr Cohen said. "The best thing is for Saddam to comply with these agreements."

In contrast with the last crisis, the US is not reinforcing its military forces in the region. President Bill Clinton was due to discuss the Iraqi situation with his advisers yesterday.

Mr Butler called the crisis with Iraq the most serious ever because Baghdad is directly confronting the Security Council by banning monitoring of its weapons sites.

"This [is] the worst confrontation by Iraq with the Security Council that we've yet seen," he said.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said he would meet Mr Butler yesterday, "to see where we go from here". He was also scheduled to meet the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, and hold consultations with council members.

The US will probably react militarily if Iraq removes surveillance cameras at hundreds of sites across Iraq, or if it expels the inspectors working for Unscom, the UN body dealing with Iraq's strategic weapons.

Iraq's willingness yesterday to allow Unscom inspectors, along with those from the International Atomic Energy Agency, to maintain the surveillance cameras shows that the Iraqi leadership is carefully measuring the pressure it is placing on the US and the Security Council.

Three months ago, Baghdad renewed its campaign against sanctions by refusing to allow Unscom to carry out new inspections.

The relaxed response of the US suggests it is more interested in maintaining sanctions than in hunting for any Iraqi weapons that may have eluded the inspectors.

Unscom has itself been weakened by the revelations of Scott Ritter, its former chief of inspectors. Mr Ritter has alleged that the organisation received substantial aid and advice from the Israeli intelligence service.

This will make it even less likely than earlier in the year that the US and Britain will get any support from Arab states in the region for military action against Baghdad.

Iraq's strategy is to increase the pressure on the US and on the Security Council in order to provoke splits over how to handle the crisis. Within the Security Council, Russia, France and China all want some concessions to be made on the issue of sanctions.

There is also a growing division between the US administration and the Republican party in the US Congress over how to handle Iraq. The Republicans believe that President Clinton is vulnerable to accusations of being soft on Saddam Hussein. They recently forced him to sign a bill allocating $97m (pounds 58m) of arms and training from the defence budget to arm the Iraqi opposition.

The White House has opposed the Republican move but may feel increasingly trapped by the never-ending crisis over the future of Iraq.

In Baghdad, officials said Iraq can withstand a US attack. "Iraq does not fear the threat of the United States because it has been threatening Iraq for the past eight years," Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said on Sunday.

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