Risk of renewed US-Iraq conflict

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THE UNITED STATES has told Iraq it risks further military action if it withdraws recognition of Kuwait. As tension escalates in the Gulf, there are signs Washington and Baghdad are moving towards open conflict, on a larger scale than December's aerial campaign. There were more attacks by US aircraft on Iraqi missile sites yesterday, and the US is reported to be drawing up plans for a larger campaign of air strikes.

Iraq's parliament threatened to withdraw recognition of the border with Kuwait at the weekend but backed away and called for further discussions of all UN resolutions declared after the 1991 Gulf war. "That would be a violation of existing Security Council resolutions, and a flagrant violation," said the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, on a visit to Japan.

"We are watching it very closely. What we have said is that to the extent that he [Saddam Hussein] poses a threat or moves against Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or the Kurds in the north that we are prepared to respond." Asked whether fresh attacks might come after Ramadan ends next week, he said: "I wouldn't want to speculate on what we might do in the future."

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said: "This will pose a major challenge for the Security Council and the United Nations. I do not know if this will be followed through; it has happened in the past that (Iraq's) Revolutionary Council has not always gone with the parliament."

Kuwait placed its small armed forces on combat alert. in reaction to the threat. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Sheikh Salem Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, of the ruling royal family, headed a defence council meeting on Sunday. "We have some units always on alert since the 1991 Gulf war and the latest measure is to further boost their readiness and level of alert," he said. Iraq has condemned Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt for facilitating last month's US and British attacks and called for their people to rise against their governments. Saudi Arabia was infuriated by the call. "The truth is the Iraqi people are the ones who deserve and need to revolt," said the official Saudi news agency.

It is possible the US may deploy more forces to defend Kuwait. There was a meeting of President Bill Clinton's national security team at Camp David on Saturday, indicating that preparations for further military action may be under way. The US and Britain said after Operation Desert Fox last year that any move by Iraq against its neighbours or its own people would trigger a response. General Anthony Zinni, the head of the US Central Command, said last week that any Iraqi assault on Shias in southern Iraq could be regarded as a threat to Kuwait, opening the door for further intervention in Iraq.

US aircraft attacked two Iraqi missile sites in the northern no-fly zone yesterday after they were targeted by radar sites near Mosul. It is just the latest in a series of such incidents, as Iraq challenges the legitimacy of the post-Gulf war settlement and the presence of allied aircraft in its skies. There have also been further intrusions by Iraqi aircraft into the no-fly zones, US officials said.

If there is to be more military action, the likely time is after the end of Ramadan next week, by which time Mr Cohen will have returned from a trip to Asia, and the President is likely to be coming to the end of his impeachment trial in the US Senate.