Middle East: Britain warns of Saddam's timebomb

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Britain warned yesterday that Iraq could make a small number of chemical and biological arms `in a matter of months' if UN inspectors were removed. As diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis escalates, Mary Dejevsky finds there is still concern in London and Washington that Baghdad should not be let off the hook.

Britain yesterday took the unusual step of releasing an intelligence assessment prepared for the Government on the threat from Iraq's programmes to build weapons of mass destruction. It said Iraq could build missiles capable of hitting Israel and Saudi Arabia "with little risk of detection" as long as it retained the key components, and warned of the risks of allowing the United Nations Special Commission inspectors to be withdrawn.

"If Unscom were to be removed or prevented from operating for a sustained period, Iraq could produce within a matter of months a small number of chemical or biological weapons, including missiles warheads," the assessment said.

"Provided it still has key components - and that is unclear - Iraq could within a few months build, with little risk of detection, missiles capable of hitting Israel and key targets in Saudi Arabia." The assessment added that any Iraqi attempts to produce crude air-delivered nuclear devices or chemical agents on a large scale would almost certainly be detected.

The information came as it was announced that foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council would meet in Geneva today or tomorrow to discuss a possible diplomatic solution to the dispute with Iraq. The news of a possible peace plan came out of Moscow, where the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, had held a surprise meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

The Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein told Russian President Boris Yeltsin in a letter that he wants a "balanced political solution" to the crisis with the United Nations to help lift UN sanctions, Mr Aziz said.

Mr Primakov, a veteran of Gulf politics and the Soviet Union's special envoy to the region before and during the 1991 Gulf War, had been encouraged by Britain, France and by the United States to try his hand at a settlement.

This was not how things were presented by the Americans. Embarrassed by reports that Washington was open to improving the terms of Iraq's "oil- for-food" arrangement - under which Iraq may sell $2bn worth of oil every six months to buy food and medicine for its population - US officials stressed that compromising with Iraq was out of the question and that the use of force remained an option.

Reinforcing the tough public line it has pursued since the start, the Pentagon announced that it was dispatching more aircraft - B52 and F117 Stealth bombers - to join the 200 or so planes already in the region.

The most likely form of deal appeared to include an increase in the amount of oil Iraq is permitted to sell, more clearly defined conditions for ending sanctions, the return of UN inspection teams to Iraq and an expansion of Unscom, the UN commission overseeing the weapons inspections.

The difficulty for Britain and America is that this amounts to a climbdown from their original hardline position and would give Iraq much of what it wanted when it first moved against American weapons inspectors last month.