Race to stop the war

British diplomats want sanctions lifted: US military expresses grave doubts: Labour MPs set to rebel
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AS Washington yesterday threatened repeated strikes to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the race to prevent the allied assault on Iraq intensified. A technical team sent by the United Nations Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, to survey "presidential" sites suspected of harbouring chemical and biological weapons met Iraqi arms negotiators in Baghdad, and Security Council members searched for consensus on a framework for talks between Mr Annan and the Iraqi government should the UN chief visit Baghdad personally.

Sir Donald Maitland, the former British ambassador to the UN, and four former British ambassadors to Iraq say that progress in the inspection of Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction should be more directly linked to the lifting of sanctions. They suggest in a letter to The Independent that the Security Council should adopt a new resolution whereby UN inspectors, reinforced by representatives of other countries, should have unrestricted access to all suspected sites in Iraq.

Once this process has begun "further sales of Iraqi oils for humanitarian aid will be allowed". The distribution of aid would be supervised by neutral observers. If, after two months, the inspection has proceeded without interference, sanctions would be further eased. When the inspectors finish their work sanctions would end.

The former British diplomats believe that the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, ensuring UN Security Council resolutions are fulfilled and ending the plight of ordinary Iraqis, needs to be handled in one package.

The United States National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, issued a warning that if diplomacy failed, US forces would hit Iraq repeatedly to cripple any residual capacity to rebuild its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. But other signals emanating from the American military suggest that if and when the orders come to attack Iraq, they will not be following them with much conviction.

Grave doubts remain in military officers' minds about the purpose of an air strike, especially in the light of likely Iraqi civilian casualties, probable loss of American pilots and the acknowledged impossibility of eliminating President Saddam Hussein's capacity to make biological and chemical weapons.

General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told US senators in a briefing last week that he estimated the cost of launching an attack would be 1,500 Iraqi civilians and American military personnel dead. Various military officers, serving and retired, have told the media that the precautions necessary to avoid inflicting even greater civilian casualties would severely hamper efforts to deal President Saddam the crushing blow the politicians seek.

In an interview with reporters last week, Gen Shelton implicitly questioned President Bill Clinton's stated purpose for an air strike, namely "substantially" to reduce or delay Iraq's ability to make weapons of mass destruction. Speaking of the ease with which Iraqi technicians could convert a hospital or a fertiliser plant into an anthrax or mustard-gas manufacturing facility, he said: "You can convert one of them quickly and resume making chemical or biological weapons. One day he's making fertiliser, the next day chemical weapons, and the next day fertiliser. We're not going to bomb hospitals, for sure ... I didn't say we can eliminate his weapons of mass destruction. We can't."

The Government is facing a revolt by Labour MPs in the Commons tomorrow over its support for military action against Iraq. Some left-wingers suggested as many as 100 members might stay away rather than vote in favour of an Anglo-US strike against President Saddam. At least six Labour MPs will vote against the Government, though some estimates have put the number as high as 20.