Russia demands: Don't bomb Iraq

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Russia warned the West against launching air strikes in Iraq, and tried to broker a diplomatic deal. But Britain and America shrugged off its warnings. Steve Crawshaw and Anthony Bevins report.

Russia yesterday issued its starkest warning yet against military action in Iraq, saying that airstrikes could be "fraught with unpredictable consequences" and would cause "big civilian casualties". It was the clearest sign of differences between Moscow and the West over the Gulf since 1990, when Russia tried but failed to head off a war.

Britain and the United States continued to pile the military pressure on Saddam Hussein. Six Royal Navy Sea Harrier jump jets left their base at Yeovilton in Somerset to join the aircraft carrier Illustrious in the Mediterranean.

The Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, said that "diplomatic efforts should be continued and may bear fruit". He warned that the situation was "acquiring a more and more menacing character".

Russia has been keen to find a hint of a concession. A spokesman in Moscow said that in conversation with President Boris Yeltsin's envoy, President Saddam declared his readiness to allow the United Nations to monitor eight new sites and to meet the chief UN arms inspector, Richard Butler.

The US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, insisted, however, that the Iraqi proposal was "not a solution", and Britain seemed equally cautious. The Prime Minister's spokesman was sceptical about President Saddam's offer, saying there were many more than eight sites that UN monitors required access to.

Answering an emergency Commons question, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, argued: "Without effective [United Nations] monitoring, Iraq could produce enough anthrax every week to fill two missile warheads and could, within weeks, be producing a large volume of nerve gas."

Apparently backing up their caution, Iraq later said that it had offered no concession. Previous confrontations have often shown Iraq to be ready to say one thing, then do another, in pursuit of brinkmanship.

Mr Cook told MPs that the Government was taking the lead in the UN Security Council, with a draft resolution seeking to ensure that UN monitors were given full and unrestricted access to suspected weapons sites. Mr Cook argued: "If we want a diplomatic solution, we have to demonstrate that we are prepared to go for military force if need be."

President Yeltsin spoke on the telephone to President Bill Clinton, as the efforts to seek a diplomatic solution continued. France has also made it clear that it opposes military action. A French spokesman said that President Jacques Chirac was sending a "very firm" message to Saddam Hussein with a senior foreign ministry official who left for Baghdad yesterday.

Washington has also met resistance from the Arab world. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, met the Saudi heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah, at a desert encampment outside Riyadh, on a tour to drum up support for possible air strikes. She denied suggestions that she was getting no Arab support during her tour.

As the signs of imminent conflict mounted, Israel went into panic mode. Patriot missiles were deployed in the southern Negev desert, Israelis were issued gas masks, and the government asked to buy millions of doses of antidotes from the United States. Israel was a target of Iraqi Scud missile strikes in the 1991 Gulf War.

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