Iraq: Hawkish Rifkind backs raids

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Further air attacks on Iraq were a 'distinct possibility', Malcom Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, said yesterday, before last night's raid on Baghdad. 'If the UN is to be flouted on every aspect of the current crisis some response could prove inevitable', he told BBC television's On the Record. 'It is clear that Iraq are determined to ignore the will of the international community. It does become a distinct possibility that action of that kind (air strikes) becomes necessary,' he said.

Mr Rifkind's hawkish remarks followed Downing Street denials at the weekend that the Prime Minister persuaded President George Bush to call off a new air strike against Iraq that had been planned for Friday night. CNN, the US television network, reported Mr Major as 'not comfortable' about taking punitive action against Saddam Hussein. British sources insisted that there was no truth in the reports.

Downing Street said in a statement: 'The position throughout this situation is that the allies have operated as a coalition. Everything that is done is done by agreement.'

Mr Rifkind said: 'Once a judgement is reached that there is no reasonable or responsible alternative to ensure that Saddam Hussein complies with the UN, military action may be necessary.'

The Defence Secretary could face questioning in the Commons today over the reasons for any future allied air strikes.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for Linlithgow, an opponent of attacks on Iraq, will ask the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, for permission to table an emergency question to the Minister requesting details of the effectiveness of last week's strike. Up to a half of US Air Force targets were reportedly missed.

Mr Dalyell's move follows reports that US military leaders want Mr Bush to authorise strikes to 'satisfy the pride' of his officers. He said: 'I am appalled that the decision whether or not to repeat the attack depends on the pride of air force officers in doing their job properly.'

Menzies Campbell, defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the Western allies' failure to move against President Saddam was putting the moral authority of the UN at risk.

'To take so long to get enforcement

of the no-fly zone in place shows a startling lack of resolve which is not lost

on Arab countries in the Middle East,' he said.