West to deliver Iraq ultimatum

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GEORGE ROBERTSON warned Iraq yesterday it risked bringing military action upon itself as America and Britain geared up to apply new pressure on Baghdad. They are likely to give Iraq an ultimatum later this week, threatening force within a specified period if it does not resume co-operation with the United Nations.

The Secretary of State for Defence, who was visiting British forces in Kuwait, said time was rapidly running out. "Saddam Hussein has engineered the most serious confrontation with the international community since the end of the Gulf War," he said, standing under the wing of a Tornado aircraft. "Don't underestimate the resolution of the international community. We mean it."

Iraq has refused to co- operate with UN inspectors who are monitoring its compliance with resolutions passed in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

The West has threatened to launch military strikes if President Saddam does not allow the inspectors to resume their work, but the details of strategy are still being worked out and are likely to become clearer later this week. Iraq is likely to be presented with an ultimatum at some stage this week, with the threat of a heavy attack intended to force Saddam into letting UN arms inspectors resume their work.

But to be credible, it must be clear that the United States and Britain have no opposition in the region or on the UN Security Council, and that sufficient military equipment is in the region. Pinpoint strikes now would have less effect than a larger attack later, according to diplomatic sources in Washington. At the same time, they do not want the process to drag on for weeks.

President Bill Clinton met his security advisers at Camp David at the weekend and gave them two more days to plan action. The US President has delayed his departure for an Asian tour by one day, and will now leave on Saturday. Britain and the US have co-ordinated closely over the past few days, with frequent meetings between senior officials.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was expected to speak last night with Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, to discuss the next step.

Both Britain and America say there is more support for military action now than during the last crisis in February. Kuwait was providing "very strong and robust" support, he said. There are 12 RAF Tornados in Kuwait. The US has also been given permission to use some facilities in the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, for any missions against Iraq. All 15 Security Council members called for Iraq to resume co-operation, but Iraq has refused.

The former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds, visiting Baghdad with the Labour MP Tam Dalyell, said war was no answer. "If Clinton and [Tony] Blair stood in the hospital that I stood in and witnessed what I had witnessed, I think the question of referring to war will be put aside," he said.