MPs uneasy about new raids on Iraq: Russia calls for halt to attacks and urges allies to seek new mandate from United Nations

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The Independent Online
GROWING anxieties emerged in Westminster and Whitehall yesterday over continued raids on Iraq as RAF Tornado bombers took part in renewed allied attacks on Iraqi air defences in the southern no-fly zone.

An unexpected demand from Russia for a new mandate to be sought from the United Nations Security Council before further raids were carried out revealed clear signs of strain within the council over coalition policy. Downing Street refused last night to rule out further attacks on Iraqi targets.

John Major agreed to the raids, but is understood to have urged caution on President George Bush in six telephone calls to discuss the action over the weekend. He emphasised the need to ensure that the action was proportionate and within the UN resolutions.

Adding to British fears of deepening involvement in the region was a call yesterday from the Kuwaiti Defence Minister for British troops to protect Kuwait from Iraqi attack. Sheikh Ali al-Sabah said Kuwait intended to ask for to British and French ground forces to join the American forces already in Kuwait.

Downing Street hinted that any such request was likely to receive a dusty reponse. Officials said Britain was under no obligation to send troops, and Conservative MPs - already anxious about the possibility of further casualties in Bosnia - privately warned that their support for action in Iraq would change if ground troops were committed.

There was concern among senior Tory MPs that the US action in Iraq had more to do with the hand-over of power tomorrow by President Bush to Bill Clinton than any strategy for tackling Saddam Hussein.

Ministers were left in no doubt that they could not depend on cross-party support holding for further action without clearer and more convincing justification. 'We look as though we are knee-jerking to Saddam Hussein's provocation,' said one senior MP.

The international misgivings were highlighted by the call by Russia, which declined to support the weekend attacks, for the allies to return to the UN Security Council for a debate. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the situation around Iraq had now 'gone beyond a critical point'.

It added: 'There have been casualties among civilians which is especially to be regretted . . . Our firm position is that reaction to the actions of Iraq must be in proportion and only according to agreed decisions.'

The Prime Minister's office said that the Government had no plans to go back to the UN for a mandate, which it believed it had from existing UN resolutions.

But Opposition party leaders and senior Tory MPs called on the allies to return to the UN to get moral backing for further action. The Speaker of the Commons will face renewed demands today by Labour and Liberal Democrats for an emergency debate.

Calls for a clearer plan for dealing with President Saddam were led in the Commons by David Howell, Conservative chairman of the cross-party Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Supporting a strong response to President Saddam's provocations, Mr Howell said: 'Something more is needed here in the way of longer-term strategy.'

David Clark, the Labour spokesman on defence, was heckled from his own benches when he supported the allied action.

Labour's official support will be challenged by backbenchers at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party tomorrow. Mr Clark said: 'There is a real fear that the provocations of Saddam Hussein and the legitimate response could get completely out of hand.'

Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, faced Tory misgivings when he made a Commons statement outlining the cruise missile attacks on an Iraqi installation near Baghdad and air strikes on Iraqi air defences in the no-fly zones.

'These coalition actions have clearly demonstrated to the Iraqis the seriousness of our demand that Iraq should comply with UN resolutions and our continuing determination to maintain the no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq,' Mr Rifkind said.

He emphasised that, on each occasion, the international community's response had been restrained and proportionate 'because we are determined to abide by international law and what is provided for in terms of the UN resolutions'.

That has forced ministers publicly to rule out any direct attempt to target Saddam Hussein.

(Photograph omitted)

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