Faint hope for envoy's Middle-East mission

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The return of the US special envoy Anthony Zinni to the Middle East is a mission born of desperation rather than expectation.

It also stems from the knowledge that for the US to stand on the sidelines would probably doom American chances of securing Arab support for action against Iraq.

President George Bush himself set the tone as he announced General Zinni's return on Thursday afternoon, flanked by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, who leaves tomorrow for his own visit to the region.

The solemn assembly of the three most senior figures in the administration in the Rose Garden of the White House was meant to demonstrate the gravity with which Washington views the descent into carnage. But a sombre Mr Bush had nothing to offer: "There are no assurances [of success] ... but that's not going to prevent our trying."

And try America must – despite the fact that General Zinni's previous attempts to press the security and confidence-building agreements of the existing Tenet and Mitchell plans have merely produced an upsurge in the violence. Indeed, before the violence reached its current levels, some State Department officials were darkly jesting that the American contribution to the search for peace was to keep General Zinni at home.

As the US realises, to do nothing would not only surrender the peace-making initiative to others, in this case the Egyptians, who have proposed a summit between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, and Saudi Arabia, which has proposed its "vision" of a land-for-peace deal that essentially resurrects UN Security Council resolution 242, demanding Israel return to its pre-1967 borders.

Amid the current surge in violence – the worst since the present intifada began in September 2000 – neither scheme is a starter. But the US has to be involved, if it is to persuade regional allies, notably Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to co-operate with a military assault on Saddam Hussein, the prime target of Mr Bush's "axis of evil".

Iraq was meant to be at the top of the agenda for the 10-day swing through the region by Mr Cheney. With Jordan strongly opposed, and no sign of enthusiasm from either the Saudis or the Kuwaitis, whose bases would be vital for a major attack, his mission was always going to be a hard sell. Against a background of perceived American indifference to the slaughter in the occupied territories, it would have been well-nigh impossible. As it is, Mr Cheney will still have tough questions to answer about the Palestinian-Israeli fighting.

Even so, administration officials say the chances of General Zinni securing a ceasefire are slim, as both sides calculate, for utterly different reasons, that violence is in their best interests. Mr Sharon knows anything else would be seen as a climbdown that might doom him politically, while the Palestinians believe that whatever their sacrifice, the tide of world opinion is turning their way and that Israelis are realising there can be no military solution to the conflict.

The one unknown is whether General Zinni is carrying any new proposals with him, beyond exhortations to apply the plans brokered by George Tenet, the CIA director, and by the former Maine Senator George Mitchell.