The Tories are to break ranks with Tony Blair in the war on terrorism by backing military action by the United States against Iraq.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, will support extending the campaign to eliminate terrorism to Saddam Hussein's regime during a three-day visit to Washington starting tonight.
Mr Blair has privately warned President George Bush that the international coalition against terrorism would fragment if the US attacked Iraq. The Government insists that no link between Iraq and the 11 September atrocities has been established. A fierce debate is raging inside the Bush administration about whether to move against Iraq, and the President warned on Monday that Saddam Hussein would "find out" the consequences if he refused to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
Until now, the Tories have maintained a bipartisan approach in the fight against terrorism, but Mr Duncan Smith will now take a more hawkish line. One close aide said last night: "His instincts are strongly on the side of those who say the war does not stop in Afghanistan." Tory officials insisted his trip would underline the strong support in Britain for the battle against terrorism. But his intervention on Iraq will infuriate British ministers, who are siding with the "doves" in Washington, including Colin Powell, the Secretary of State.
On his first foreign trip since becoming Conservative leader, Mr Duncan Smith is expected to have talks with leading members of the Bush administration, including Vice-President Dick Cheney; Condo- leezza Rice, the National Security adviser; John Boulton, the number two at the State Department, and Paul Wolfowitz at the Defence Department. Mr Duncan Smith may also see Mr Bush.
Meanwhile, as talks got under way in Bonn between several Afghan factions on the shape of a post-Taliban government, the Islamist regime's control of its dwindling redoubt in the south continued to crumble and more US marines poured in to set up their base near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. At the same time, Northern Alliance opposition forces completed the capture of Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in northern Afghanistan, and the bloody uprising by pro-Taliban prisoners loyal to Osama bin Laden appeared finally to have been crushed except for a few dozen diehards.
Last night, the key town of Spin Boldak, astride the road from the frontier with Pakistan to Kandahar, was in near chaos, as rival tribes challenged what remained of Taliban rule in the town and looting began. US warplanes continued to bomb Taliban positions both there and around Kandahar itself. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said the marines, whose number was set to rise to 1,000 overnight, were aiming to block the movement of Mr bin Laden, his al-Qa'ida followers and his Taliban protectors. The marines have already been in action, using helicopters to fire on a convoy of 15 vehicles heading for the desert airstrip they had seized on Monday.
* Former US President George Bush Snr will represent the United States in Britain tomorrow for the national memorial service at Westminster Abbey for the victims of the 11 September attacks.Reuse content