Who blinks first? Saddam engages Clinton in a battle of nerves

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The trial of strength between the United States and Iraq seemed to be reaching the point of no return last night, as President Clinton and Saddam Hussein traded warnings and threats over the head of the United Nations.

From New York and Washington to Baghdad, yesterday was a day of waiting and warning. The United Nations was waiting for the return of its three special envoys from Baghdad and their report. The United States was waiting to see if Iraq would dare to try to shoot down one of its U2 spy planes, which are due to resume their UN missions over Iraq today. Iraq was waiting for the US attack it believed was inevitable.

From Washington came the voice of President Clinton, warning Iraq that any attempt to shoot down a U2 would "not be tolerated". He said that shooting down a U2 pilot would be "murder" and called on the United Nations to take "very strong and unambiguous action" to force Iraq to comply with UN weapons inspections.

He was speaking in an interview - on the talkshow Meet the Press that had been scheduled for weeks, but he had the full weight of his Administration behind him, having come straight from a crisis meeting at the White House.

Within hours, the warning came back from Baghdad that no quarter would be given. "We have to choose between sacrifice and slavery," President Saddam Hussein told Iraqis. Iraq, he said in a nationwide broadcast, had been "put in a position where it has to choose either to live honorably and with dignity or to face all the possibilities".

Venting his frustration with United Nations procedures, Saddam said that co-operation with the UN "has not led us to any result, and there is not the least hope that it will lead us to any result". In other words, even before the UN envoys had arrived back, even before his Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, had arrived in New York to plead his country's cause, Baghdad was prepared for the worst.

The official newspaper of the ruling Ba'ath party had earlier reported that anti-aircraft systems were on alert to shoot down "any hostile target, whatever its kind and nationality".

Mr Clinton was careful, as he has been throughout the escalating crisis, not to treat the use of force as inevitable or to give the impression of bypassing the United Nations. "I don't want to rule anything in or out," he said when asked whether military force would be necessary. "I think ... at a moment like this ... it's very important that the President maintain all options and signal none. And that's where I want to be."

Reflecting Washington's concern not to find itself isolated in the United Nations, he said that Saddam Hussein needed to understand that this was "not just the President of the United States", and appealed to Russia, France and other members of the UN Security Council to preserve a united front.

As if on cue, Downing Street released a small portion of a letter from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to President Clinton, in which he promised to continue the previous government's support for the UN over Iraq. "I have no doubt," Mr Blair wrote, "that as in the past we must stand absolutely firm and absolutely together."

Ministry of Defence sources confirmed that the use of Tornado jets, which were used in the Gulf War, was among the options being studied this weekend by Cabinet Ministers. Mr Blair is keen to ensure that the US does not appear isolated. Whitehall sources insisted that action would be taken with the support of the Security Council members.

Notwithstanding this pledge of support, the sense from Washington and Baghdad was of another duel between the strong man of Iraq and the United States. In the US capital, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, said he thought that Congress would support unilateral US action against Iraq.

A spokesman for Iraq's Ministry of Culture and Information was quoted as blaming the United States for "the recent tension between Iraq and the [UN] Special Commission [which oversees weapons inspections]", and claiming that the US was seeking "a pretext for military aggression". Nor was there any sign that the Iraqi position might soften. Iraqi soldiers yesterday prevented American inspectors from entering suspected weapons sites for the seventh day running. UN teams refused to proceed without their American members and the inspections were called off.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, said that the UN would try and find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Iraq but added: "It is serious; no one should underestimate it."