Ready to go: America is on the brink of attacking Iraq again

Iraq and the United States looked set for renewed armed conflict after a day of high drama in New York, Washington and Baghdad. The Iraqis announced the expulsion of American weapons inspectors; the UN said it will leave Iraq. Our US correspondent weighs the choices on all sides.
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The stand-off accelerated with a speed that few had anticipated, including Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General. Yesterday morning, only hours after the United Nations Security Council had passed a unanimous resolution approving further sanctions on Iraq, Baghdad hit back. The six US weapons inspectors in Iraq were given six and a half hours to leave the country. They were told to leave for Jordan by land, a hard overnight journey.

An expulsion order had been hanging over the American members of UN inspection teams since 29 October, when Baghdad first ordered their departure - an order that was suspended while diplomatic procedures were underway.

In Washington, President Clinton called the National Security Council into immediate session. He emerged, grave, to describe the expulsions as "clearly unacceptable" and a "challenge to the international community". He added: "It is important to the safety of the world that they [the inspectors] continue their work. I intend to pursue the matter in a very determined way."

Within the hour, Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, the commission overseeing the disarming of Iraq, announced the withdrawal of all Unscom staff in Iraq. A small team of about nine people will be left to maintain facilities. Asked whether the UN offices, equipment and documents were secure, Mr Butler said bluntly: "Yes." But he stressed that "every day lost makes the circumstances worse" in terms of Iraq's unmonitored military potential.

The Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, who has been trying to argue his country's case at the UN this week, blew hot and cold, but maintained the position he has presented consistently: "Iraq is ready to continue its cooperation with Unscom. Unscom could perform fully its duties, with any other personnel the chairman decides to send, except the Americans."

Iraq's view is that American members of the UN teams, and the American- piloted U2 spy planes that are used for UN surveillance missions over Iraq, are being used not only for UN purposes, but in America's own national interests. Mr Aziz has continually made reference to an unannounced inspection at an installation he said was for the security of President Saddam Hussein, and so, in his view, a matter of national security and sovereignty.

The consistency of Tariq Aziz's position, the defiant words of other Iraqi officials who say they are "not scared" of further sanctions or a military strike, and the overt preparations for war in Baghdad - the whipping up of national sentiment, the mass demonstrations and the mustering of "volunteers" at the presidential palace, all suggest that Iraq has decided that it has nothing to lose by standing firm. Baghdad wants a foreseeable end to sanctions.

The United Nations has a dilemma. It muststand by the principle that no country can determine the composition of UN teams, and no country should defy UN resolutions. But with several Security Council members, including Russia, China and France, reluctant to impose further sanctions, it is hard to see that it would approve the use of force to ensure compliance, so long as Iraq does not resort to force itself.

This pushes the burden of decision on to President Clinton. He has a cause: US inspectors are being expelled. He also has the capacity: the US has sufficient hardware in the region to launch an immediate military strike on Iraq, and a national consensus: a weekend poll showed more than 60 per cent would support the use of righteous indignation, compared with 24 per cent who would oppose it.

The problem for Mr Clinton is, what then? The US believes the UN has the authority for a military strike under previous Security Council resolutions, but this is not a view universally shared. Even by asking for a new resolution on military action, the US could break the fragile unity of the Security Council; but if it strikes unilaterally, international opprobrium will be turned away from Iraq and on to the US.

If Mr Clinton does nothing, he appears weak.

On past performance the possibility of Saddam Hussein backing down looks remote. In which case, Mr Clinton may reason that a military strike should be sooner rather than later.