The 70-Hour War: Military Options - Strategy aims at endgame for Saddam

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TONY BLAIR and Bill Clinton have laid out a new strategy towards Saddam Hussein aimed at containing him militarily and preparing for his end.

The most visible element of the new plan is the dispatch of the British aircraft carrier HMS Invincible to the Gulf. George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, said: "It is a very big signal - we are not going away, we remain vigilant."

The ship can mount air and land attacks, and carries up to 24 aircraft - usually a mix of Sea Harrier FA2 fighters, RAF Harrier GR7 bombers and Sea King helicopters.

The carrier, which has been refitted since serving in the Falklands, has a crew of 1,200 men and women.

There are four main elements in the new strategy of containment, laid out by the US President on Saturday and the Prime Minister yesterday in virtually identical speeches. The first is the readiness to use force. "We will maintain a strong military presence in the area, and we will remain ready to use it if Saddam tries to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction, strikes out at his neighbours, challenges allied aircraft, or moves against the Kurds," Mr Clinton said.

The second element is the maintenance of sanctions. "We will sustain what have been among the most extensive sanctions in UN history," Mr Clinton said. The US and Britain will support the oil-for-food programme, but,"we will insist that Iraq's oil be used for food, not tanks", Mr Clinton said. Again, that means more military and naval action.

"We will be acting to ensure that implementation of sanctions is as rigorous as we can make it, for example through reinforced operations in the Gulf to intercept suspect traffic," Mr Blair said. "We need, radically in my view, to improve sanctions-enforcement."

The third pillar is counter-proliferation - ensuring that Iraq does not develop its weapons of mass destruction. This will be much harder without Unscom on the ground providing intelligence. Again, all that is left is military force.

"If Unscom is not allowed to resume its work on a regular basis, we will remain vigilant and prepared to use force if we see that Iraq is rebuilding its weapons programmes," Mr Clinton said.

The fourth is perhaps the most intriguing - the replacement of Saddam Hussein. "Over the long-term the best way to end the threat that Saddam poses to his own people in the region is for Iraq to have a different government," said Mr Clinton.

The US has already stepped up links with the Iraqi opposition, and had said it would work out before the end of the year ways of disbursing the $97m agreed by Congress for military training and equipment. "We will intensify our engagement with the Iraqi oppo-sition groups, prudently and effectively," Mr Clinton said.

The US and Britain have also given clear signals that they believe there is someone, or something, waiting in the wings. "We will stand ready to help a new leadership in Baghdad that abides by its international commitments and respects the rights of its own people," Mr Clinton said. "We hope it will return Iraq to its rightful place in the community of nations."

Achieving these goals will require two principal means - military and diplomatic. On the one hand, both countries have a lot of fences to mend with their allies in Europe, as well as Russia and China. "We are launching an intensive diplomatic process with other members of the Security Council," said Mr Blair, "with the countries of the region, with our European partners to forge a new strategy for stability in relations between the international community and Iraq."

He put much more weight on diplomacy in his speech than Mr Clinton did in his.

On the other, a continuing military presence in the Gulf will require great expenditure and a shift towards a much more active policy for both nations in the region. The US already maintains a considerable military and naval force in the Gulf, and it is reinforcing it. It is sending an extra 40 ground-based aircraft, and special air-to-ground surveillance aircraft that will enable the US to track the movements of tanks and vehicles.

The addition of HMS Invincible means that, by January, there will be two or perhaps three aircraft carriers in the Gulf; there are currently two US carriers (the USS Enterprise and the USS Carl Vinson), though the Enterprise may be rotated out.

But for Britain, the mission in the Gulf may mark a much more important transition.

Mr Blair has made a long-term commitment to a military force in the Gulf, but also seems to be making an attempt to forge a quiet new form of strategic alliance with the US outside of Europe.

Britain withdrew its military forces from east of Suez in 1971 because of its reduced circumstances, closing bases and focusing almost exclusively on the Nato mission in Europe.

Now, the return of the Invincible seems to suggest a gradual return to the globalism that died out in the Sixties. Britain has also recently bought its own submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, and is planning two new aircraft carriers. There may be a shift taking place that has profound implications for foreign and defence policy.