The 70-Hour War: Cook embarks on telephone diplomacy to seek support

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The Independent Online
REJECTING CRITICISM at home and abroad, Britain stuck to a hard line on Iraq yesterday, insisting that tough sanctions should stay and that despite everything that had happened, United Nations weapons inspectors could and should return to Baghdad.

Hours before a deeply divided UN Security Council met in New York to consider what to do next in the Gulf, the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett made clear that Britain would not go along with "consensus at any price".

There could be "no easy rewards" for President Saddam Hussein after his defiance of UN resolutions and the refusal to co- operate with the Unscom inspectors. It would now be "more difficult" to embark on the comprehensive review of sanctions desired by Baghdad than before, Mr Fatchett said.

As he spoke, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, embarked on a round of telephone diplomacy aimed at shoring up support among European and Arab countries - at best lukewarm and sometimes downright hostile to last week's bombardment - and at showing that Britain did have a longer-term policy towards Iraq.

That policy is based on three notions: "containment", or reducing the military threat posed by President Saddam; continuing progress on ridding Iraq of its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, preferably through the Unscom mechanism; and some action to ease the hardships of civilians.

On the last point - of particular sensitivity given the charges that sanctions have caused hunger and disease among civilians - Mr Cook did receive some comfort yesterday at a meeting with his German opposite number, Joschka Fischer. The idea is for a European Union initiative to tackle humanitarian needs not being catered for by the UN oil-for-food programme.

But there Britain and the United States begin to part company with their allies. Mr Fischer underlined the need to create circumstances where a similar showdown need not occur. That would be a "difficult challenge for all parties", he said, implicitly calling for compromise. This, too, is broadly the Paris line, but France's objections to last week's raids run deeper. The French feel sanctions are close to exhausting their usefulness: "We should go towards a lifting of the embargo," the Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, said on French radio yesterday.

Difficulties also loom for the UN's inspection mission. Tacitly, even Britain acknowledges that a return of the old-style Unscom is not on the cards. But any modified system seems bound to be even weaker. Nor is Britain prepared to sacrifice Richard Butler, the Unscom chief who is said to be a US stooge. "We have confidence in Mr Butler," Mr Fatchett said.