US says diplomatic options are running out for Saddam

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The Independent Online
The US warned yesterday that the time for diplomacy was running out and it is prepared to use "substantial" force against Iraq. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said on a visit to Jerusalem that the aim of military action is to prevent Iraq acquiring and developing weapons of mass destruction and threatening its neighbours.

At the start of her Middle East tour to rally support against President Saddam Hussein, she said: "We all prefer a diplomatic solution, but the window for carrying out that diplomatic solution ... seems to be narrowing." Questioned about the time-scale for military action, she replied: "The string is running out. The time on it is shorter and shorter ... It is not days and not months - that means weeks."

Last night Kuwait said it would support US military action against Iraq if it was "the last resort". The US is trying to force Iraq to allow UN weapons inspectors access to all sites by escalating verbal and military threats. Three US aircraft-carriers and one British carrier are already in the Gulf with more than 300 aircraft. Mrs Albright told Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, that any military strike against Iraq would be "comprehensive, swift and aimed at specific targets".

Viktor Posuvalyuk, the Russian deputy foreign minister, returned to Baghdad last night for the second time in a week to try to forge a diplomatic compromise. "[The Iraqis] have made certain proposals," he told Russian television. "We have to try to get more concessions from them ... " Last November, Russia defused an earlier confrontation between the US and Iraq.

As the US and Britain keep up diplomatic pressure on Baghdad there are signs of nervousness in Washington about the effectiveness of prolonged air strikes in forcing the Iraqi leader to comply with UN resolutions. William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, warned against "unreasonable expectations" from US air strikes. He said: "We do not have as a goal the toppling of Saddam Hussein."

Mr Cohen appeared to indicate that the air strikes would not try to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, such as power stations, oil refineries and bridges, which was one of the most successful strategies of the air campaign in the Gulf war. George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, also said: "We're not in the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein - that will be the job for his people." Air attacks, if they come, will concentrate on sites such as presidential palaces which UN inspectors have not been allowed to enter, as well as sites used by the Iraqi military.

Last night the Iraqi foreign minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, accused Tony Blair of using ugly adjectives when he described Saddam Hussein as an "evil dictator". Downing Street said it stood by the comments.

As tension mounted the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, proposed $5.2bn in oil sales for Iraq to buy humanitarian goods, more than double the funds at present allotted.

Robert Fisk, page 9

Bombing limits, page15