US has second thoughts as allies reject force

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The Independent Online
Washington appeared to be backing away from a military strike against Iraq yesterday. Mary Dejevsky in Washington says the cooling of American rhetoric came amid mounting evidence that international support for military action was lacking.

The US military build-up in the Gulf continued yesterday, with the dispatch of a second aircraft carrier, the George Washington, and more fighter planes, but the emphasis of US statements moved conspicuously away from warmongery, as most of Washington's Gulf War allies made clear their reluctance to support military action against Iraq.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, slipped a series of additional stops - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait - into her whistle-stop Middle East tour. But she had to leave even Kuwait with no support for the use of armed force against its former invader.

On television talkshows, US administration officials emphasised their strong preference for a diplomatic outcome. William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, said the US was continuing to "seek a peaceful resolution" and played down the evident lack of international support for the military option. "I don't think we should speculate about who would be in there," he said.

President Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, dismissed Kuwait's rejection of the military option, saying this was the view of "only the foreign minister". But, he said: "Our first preference is to solve this by diplomatic means". He said the US was still engaged in a "concerted effort through our friends and allies", to persuade the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, to back down.

The leaders of Britain, France and Russia, were among those contacted by Mr Clinton over the weekend, but only Britain was making active military preparations to support the US. A 35-minute conversation with President Jacques Chirac led only to a verbal condemnation of Iraq and a call for a diplomatic settlement.

Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, who spent last week trying to present Baghdad's view at the UN, was still in Paris yesterday, reportedly preparing for a North African tour to drum up support.

US commentators are also warning of the likely diplomatic fall-out if the US uses force unilaterally. While opinion polls show public support for military action, the retired Gulf War general Norman Schwarzkopf warned that what the US was trying to achieve in the current conflict was difficult to obtain.

If 43 days of saturation bombing had failed to persuade Saddam Hussein to change his mind in 1991, there was no reason why he would submit as a result of military action now. This time, it was not simply a question of punishing the Iraqi leader, but of trying to get him to allow Americans back into UN weapons inspections teams. In this, Gen Schwarzkopf warned, a military strike could be counterproductive.