Massive air strike on Iraq within days

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The Independent Online
THE PROSPECT of a massive aerial assault on Iraq hardened further yesterday, as Britain and the United States rejected a new inspections offer from Baghdad, and the senior US military commander in the Middle East said that he would be ready to strike within a week.

Any hopes of a breakthrough raised by Iraq's offer of opening eight of the "presidential palaces" to a limited two-month inspection by United Nations officials quickly faded, as Washington reiterated its hostility to anything less than unfettered access to the sites where Saddam Hussein is suspected of hiding chemical and biological weapons.

"We don't think there should be any deals or compromises," Bill Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN, said last night. That line was echoed by the Foreign Office, which described the concession - of allowing a new team of inspectors appointed by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, to inspect the "palaces" - as "encouraging" but not enough to fulfil existing resolutions of the Security Council.

In the meantime, the build-up for war continues inexorably. As the Pentagon ordered a further 19 warplanes to the Gulf, including six F-117 stealth fighters and seven B-52 bombers, Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni said his forces, spearheaded by 400 strike aircraft and hundreds of cruise missiles, would be ready to go into action "within a week or so". Basically, he said, "we're ready now," but "there are a few more pieces to put in".

Yet more pressure came from Egypt which, like almost every Arab country beyond the Gulf, is hostile to a strike. After meeting the Iraqi foreign minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, in Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak said he had told his visitor that implementation of the Security Council resolutions was the only way out of the crisis.

But Mr Sahhaf's claim that the latest concession effectively covered "all the sites in Iraq" convinced no one. Even France, which will not join in any attack, said more was required, and in a modest display of support both Spain and Italy said they would allow US bases on their soil to be used to support an offensive.

The chances of avoiding one hinge on whether Baghdad's concession signals the first blink on the way to a climb-down, or whether - as seemed more likely last night - it was a futile gambit along what is now a choreographed path to war.

In Britain, the reverberations of the crisis continued. Contradicting the 10 Anglican bishops opposing military strikes, Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared that President Saddam's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction meant he could not be permitted to defy the UN.

In the Commons, meanwhile, Tony Blair repeated that military action would come if President Saddam did not comply, while Tony Benn, a leader of the leftwingers opposed to any strikes, predicted they would start after the Commons debate on the crisis next Tuesday.

And in Baghdad, the apparent concessions were mixed with dark forebodings of war. Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister who was foreign minister during the 1991 Gulf War, appealed to Mr Annan to intervene, accusing Britain and the US of deliberately spurning a diplomatic solution.

Crisis latest, page 13