Blair says no attack on Iraq without UN assent

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Tony Blair has privately reassured his Labour Party critics that Britain will not back US military action against Iraq unless it wins the backing of the United Nations Security Council.

His assurances, at a private meeting with senior Labour figures, were disclosed as Britain stepped up the pace to secure agreement through the Security Council for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.

British ministers and officials are optimistic of a breakthrough at the UN which would lift the immediate threat of American-led military intervention. But Britain has warned Iraq that it must guarantee that weapons monitors could "go anywhere, anytime" to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from moving weapons around to evade detection.

Despite Mr Blair's solid public support for President George Bush's threats to take military action, there is evidence that London and Washington are pursuing diverging strategies behind the scenes.

While Mr Bush has made no secret of his goal of toppling Saddam, calling publicly for a "regime change", Britain is working hard to make the diplomatic route pay dividends. One senior British source said yesterday: "Our policy is to divest Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, not to divest Iraq of Saddam Hussein."

British officials suggested that Mr Blair's tough warnings about military action were aimed partly at forcing Iraq to the negotiating table at the UN. "We have seen a different approach recently; we think Iraq is now taking the threat seriously," said one.

Members of Labour's ruling national executive committee (NEC) said that Mr Blair assured them at their last meeting that he would seek UN backing before supporting military action.

The actor Tony Robinson, a member of the NEC, said in a report of the meeting circulated to grassroots Labour activists: "I think most NEC members were to some extent reassured by his response, particularly his categorical statement that he won't do anything without UN backing or consultation with our European allies. My own impression was that he was implying that a large part of the bellicose rhetoric currently flying around is being deployed in order to get Saddam to the negotiating table."

Blair aides admit privately that widespread concern in the party about the Prime Minister's hawkish stance is not confined to "the usual left-wing suspects". Yesterday 10 MPs tabled a Commons motion saying that "any offensive military action against Iraq can only be morally justified if it carries a new and specific mandate from the United Nations Security Council".

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said at the weekend that the issue of the inspectors was a "separate and distinct matter" from a military attack. But other governments, including Britain, believe that Iraq reopening the door to inspectors would rob Washington of any diplomatic justification for an all-out attack.

Talks last week between Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, and a delegation from Baghdad ended with signs of progress towards letting the inspectors return. In previous meetings, Iraq had not even acknowledged the presence of the chairman who will be responsible for sending the inspectors in and reporting on the weapons programmes.

There have been no inspectors in Iraq for three and a half years. But Baghdad may now be softening its opposition to a resumption of inspections because it is taking seriously declarations that Mr Bush intends to invade Iraq and toppling Saddam.

"Iraq has clearly spotted this and is doing this work to gain a more accurate calculation of its options," one Western diplomat observed. If it considers that military action is imminent, welcoming back the inspectors may be the only option left to Baghdad.