'From now on some will accuse us of political opportunism for every move that I make,' Mr Bush said in a brief impromptu news conference as he returned to the White House from the presidential retreat, Camp David. 'That's unfortunate but it's not going to deter me from doing what is right, regardless of the political fall-out . . . There will be no politics and I will do what is right for the United States and in this case for the rest of the world.'
With polls showing him still far behind Governor Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential challenger, Mr Bush was yesterday fending off reports that he was planning to retrieve his fortunes by staging an opportunistic showdown with Saddam Hussein during the crucial Republican convention, which opens in Houston today.
Rumours of military action to force President Saddam to comply with Gulf war ceasefire terms are now a ritual part of the long-running war of nerves between the Iraqi leader and the White House, but none has had the detail or the clearly threatening tones of what appears to be a story deliberately leaked to the New York Times yesterday. The sabre- rattling in the US has rarely been louder.
While administration and campaign officials furiously denied party politics were behind the timing of the new confrontation, the Pentagon has moved senior air warfare battle commanders to Saudi Arabia. 'If something needs to be done, it will be,' the Senate minority leader, Robert Dole, said yesterday. According to the New York Times, the US - with the backing of Britain and France - intends to demand access for United Nations inspectors to the Ministry of Military Industrialisation in Baghdad today. If President Saddam refuses, the building would be bombed by carrier-based US aircraft. The UN would then demand access to Iraq's Defence Ministry, with the threat of similar action.
Senior British ministers will discuss action against Iraq tomorrow at a special Cabinet committee meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. Foreign Office sources said the reports of Iraqi attacks on the Kurds were 'very disturbing'. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, are expected to brief the meeting of the Defence and Overseas Policy committee in Downing Street on reports that the Iraqis have used napalm against the Kurds. British ministers are ready to support US air strikes against Iraqi targets, and the Foreign Office said talks had been held with partners in the UN Security Council about action to enforce UN resolutions.
The calculation seems to be that given the importance of the sites chosen, the Iraqi leader would have to say no to demands for access to the ministries. The assault that would follow would add to the traditional convention 'bounce' on which Republicans are desperately counting to lift Mr Bush's popularity. 'We are going to stage an incident . . . to help get the President re-elected,' the New York Times quoted an unnamed official as saying.
There is no mistaking the administration's utter loss of patience with President Saddam, after the long impasse over the UN inspection of the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry last month. The Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney, yesterday said: 'We can't stand down the work of the international organisation to insist on UN compliance simply because we have the inconvenience of an election year at home.' In Baghdad, the head of the UN weapons inspection team said he was awaiting orders from New York on whether his team would leave Iraq tomorrow as planned. He declined to say whether the 22-member team had tried to enter a government ministry, placed off limits by Baghdad.
The Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams, said yesterday: 'You can't let Iraq . . . draw a red line around buildings.' The Agriculture Ministry episode prompted Mr Clinton to endorse the use of force to secure Baghdad's compliance - which would make it harder for Democrats to level the political opportunism charge.
Houston convention, page 7
Border clampdown, page 8
Leading articles, page 16