Iraq rejects US call to resume arms inspections

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American jets attacked air defence targets in southern Iraq yesterday, as Baghdad rejected a demand from the US President, George Bush, for United Nations inspectors to be allowed back into the country to establish whether it is still producing weapons of mass destruction.

The attacks are the latest in a long-running series of confrontations between Iraq and the American and British aircraftpatrolling the no-fly zone, imposed after the Gulf war. They have no direct link with the new warnings from Washington, which have suggested that Saddam Hussein's regime could be the next target in the anti-terror campaign.

A statement from the Pentagon gave no details of the attack, saying merely that an air defence command and control system had been hit.

It is the first such attack since the start of the air campaign in Afghanistan last month. But it will only heighten the sense that Mr Bush has Baghdad firmly in his sights.

Mr Bush demanded a resumption of UN inspections in Iraq, saying the anti-terror campaign was also aimed at "those who make weapons of mass destruction and terrorise the world".

He did not spell out the consequences if Iraq refused, and White House officials later denied there had been any change in US policy.

But the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, ratcheted up the pressure, telling CNN that Mr Bush's words were "a very sober, chilling message".

They may also be an attempt to sway the UN Security Council. The US and Britain are hoping to gain its support for "smart sanctions" against Baghdad, focusing on imports with a possible military use, while amending the existing humanitarian programme whose latest six-month extension runs out on Friday.

The smart sanctions have been consistently vetoed by Russia. But yesterday Moscow seemed to hold out the possibility of a compromise. Diplomats said that while the oil-for-food programme would be rolled over for a further six months, the draft resolution to be adopted this week would provide for a review of the embargo list at the end of the six-month period. The move would in effect delay the US-British "smart sanctions" plan for a few more months.

Mr Bush's new threat to target Iraq puts the Russians on the spot. Though Moscow wants sanctions lifted, President Vladimir Putin has aligned his country squarely behind Washington's anti-terror campaign.

General Powell tried to enlist Russia's support in a phone call to Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, yesterday. The Secretary of State will visit Moscow early next month for discussions in which Iraq will be high on the agenda.