Iraq threatens new stand-off

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The Independent Online
IRAQ and the United Nations are again heading for conflict as the uneasy truce which averted air strikes by the US and Britain showed signs of unravelling yesterday.

Seven days after Iraq promised to resume co-operating with United Nations weapons inspectors, Baghdad was stoking tensions by refusing to hand over sensitive documents about its weapons capabilities.

Richard Butler, chief of Unscom, the body charged with finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, wrote to the Security Council late on Friday, notifying ambassadors that Iraq was balking at requests he had made for documents relevant to its biological and chemical weapons programmes. Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Riyad al-Qaisi, described the UN demands as "provocative rather than professional".

The documents include an official air force journal which is believed to contain details of Iraqi chemical weapons destroyed during the Iran- Iraq war of 1980-1988. The document was unearthed during a search in July, but the inspectors were not allowed to take it away. Iraq has maintained it is not relevant to the investigation, but said inspectors could review "relevant portions" of it in the presence of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's envoy.

When Iraq delivered its last-minute capitulation a week ago, both President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair pledged that Saddam Hussein would suffer instant military punishment if he strayed again. In surrendering, President Saddam promised once more to give full and unconditional access to UN inspectors. But while Mr Clinton acknowledged, during an official visit to South Korea yesterday, that a new crisis with Iraq might be brewing, he said he needed time to judge its seriousness, adding: "I think it's important that we do not over-react here on the first day. I want to make sure I know exactly what the facts are." The Foreign Office in London echoed his cautious line.

Sandy Berger, the US national security adviser, signalled yesterday that Washington's position is unchanged. "The issue here is whether Iraq will meet its obligations ... and whether Unscom is able to do its work," Mr Berger said. "If we reach the conclusion the answer to those questions is negative,we obviously are prepared to act."

There is a huge American military presence still in the Gulf region, which could be activated to launch strikes in Iraq within a matter of hours. British Tornado jets, which had been assigned to join bombing raids last weekend, also remain in Kuwait and ready for action.

The government-controlled daily in Baghdad, Babel, predicted a British and American assault on Iraq by the end of February next year. Washington and London, it said, "are expected to direct cruise missiles followed by jet fighters" against Iraq and to "expand the so-called safe havens [north and south Iraq] followed by their troops after they have reached 25,000 in the Gulf". The newspaper comment was the first acknowledgement the Iraqi government is prepared for military action.

British troops stationed in the Gulf, meanwhile, have been mounting secret raids into Iraqi waters to intercept ships attempting to smuggle banned goods in and out of Iraq. Millions of pounds worth of oil and electrical goods - which could be used to repair military equipment - have been seized by Royal Marines carrying out "surge operations".