UK will support strikes on other countries, says Hoon

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Indy Politics

Britain signalled yesterday that it would support the American-led coalition in carrying out military strikes on other countries suspected of providing refuge for Osama bin Laden or his al-Qa'ida network.

But the planned expansion of the "war against terrorism" being waged in Afghanistan immediately threatened to divide the coalition, with Germany warning that most European countries would not support such action.

Britain's backing for the repeated US threat to undertake attacks on other countries came in evidence given by Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, to the Commons' Defence Select Committee. Mr Hoon said an "invasive military response" may be necessary in countries where the state was too weak to take action against terrorists operating in its own territory. But he tried to exclude Iraq from the list of potential targets.

Saddam Hussein's regime is seen as the real target of US hawks, but Mr Hoon said: "I have not seen any evidence to link Iraq directly with al-Qa'ida."

His comments follow reports that the US was preparing so-called "stiletto attacks" on countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, from where al-Qa'ida cells are believed to operate. He told MPs: "We are well aware al-Qa'ida has tentacles in a considerable number of jurisdictions including this one. The response may well depend on the most appropriate way of dealing with that threat.

"I think across the spectrum there are different means that may be appropriate according to the places al-Qa'ida and similar organisations operate. In a state that has very little control within its own borders, certainly a degree of invasive military response may be appropriate."

In Berlin, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Germany was not "simply waiting to intervene militarily elsewhere in the world, such as Iraq or Somalia". The Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, told the Bundestag: "All European nations would view a broadening of the conflict to include Iraq highly sceptically – and that is putting it diplomatically."

Both men warned that bombing Iraq could trigger a wider, uncontrollable conflict in the Middle East. "We should be particularly careful about a discussion about new targets in the Middle East – more could blow up in our faces there than any of us realise," Mr Schröder said.

President Bush has declared that "the front against terror is not just in Afghanistan ... We're going to fight terror wherever it exists". And this week he insisted that UN inspectors be allowed back into Iraq. Asked what would happen if President Saddam refused, he replied: "He'll find out."

Mr Hoon also told MPs that Western intelligence agencies had been struck that only some of the 11 September hijackers left suicide notes. They now believe that some of them might not have realised they were going on a suicide mission. He said: "It may well have been that some of those people involved thought they were engaged in a routine hijacking."