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Military strike against Iraq looms: Charles Richards, Middle East Editor, assesses the likely consequences for Baghdad of its defiance of the UN

THE likelihood of military action against Iraq for its refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions increased dramatically yesterday after the White House spokesman said Iraq 'must be held accountable'.

The possibility of some military action became all the more likely after the withdrawal of United Nations inspectors from their fruitless vigil outside the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad.

The UN inspectors had virtually camped outside the ministry for 17 days after the Iraqi government refused them entry to search for documents relating to Iraq's programme to develop weapons of mass destruction. The team leader, Mark Silver, said that they were withdrawing for their own protection after they had faced 'threats and physical pressure' from increasingly aggressive crowds clearly orchestrated by the Iraqi authorities against them.

The Iraqis, however, have remained defiant. The Agriculture Ministry debacle is only the latest incident. Elsewhere, a UN guard has been killed in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and a car bomb nearly killed the wife of the French President, Francois Mitterrand.

Iraq's refusal to permit the UN inspectors access to the building is in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 687. This consequently gives the legal basis for any action, including military, which the United States might wish to take.

American and other Western diplomats said that this week the situation had reached its most serious level, but admitted that the US-led coalition against Iraq had few realistic options. As with the Gulf war, the United States has to identify both aims and means. Are its aims to punish Iraq, to remove Saddam Hussein or to speed the destruction of Iraq's weapons development programme? And how could these be achieved with more limited means after so many weeks of co- ordinated strikes in early 1991 failed to achieve total success?

President George Bush must weigh up the political risks. At one point, striking against Saddam Hussein would have improved his flagging presidential election standings. Now it could derail the Arab-Israel peace process, just as new life is being breathed into it.

The way in which President Saddam has stood up to the international community and survived throughout this period suggests that he is growing in confidence at home.

Many in the Arab world would like to see Saddam Hussein removed once and for all. Three of Iraq's regional neighbours - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria - are preparing a co-ordinated effort to topple him. This has of itself created a notable rapprochement in the difficult and sensitive relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Some sort of air strike, to take out a weapons factory already earmarked for destruction, or to hit, for example, the Agriculture Ministry, might make the West feel that it was actually doing something positive. It would not of itself solve the longer-term problem of how to restrain Iraq's military and regional ambitions.