Britain backed secret Iraqi talks to allow return of UN inspectors

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Britain tried to defuse the growing Iraq crisis three years ago by encouraging secret talks between Saddam Hussein and diplomats from across the Middle East.

Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, said he used contacts with foreign ministers in the Gulf to persuade the Iraqi leader to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Mr Hain, then a Foreign Office minister, said he held talks with diplomats in the Gulf to clarify the deal put forward under UN Security Council resolution 1284, which offered to lift sanctions against Iraq within 180 days if weapons inspectors were allowed back into the country.

Mr Hain said he also had contacts with a British charity, the Next Century Foundation, which also sought direct talks with Saddam's regime.

Details of the diplomatic initiative emerged yesterday from files uncovered in the Iraqi foreign ministry.

But Mr Hain insisted that the British government had no direct contacts with the Iraqi government and said that the diplomatic initiative was not linked to the White House. He said: "I was approached by a number of Gulf foreign ministers in particular and several Middle East ministers who were trying to persuade the Iraqis and had direct contact with Baghdad – I never did – to see whether they would accept the UN resolution.

"There was a certain amount of clarification people sought from me as to whether the sanctions would be suspended and exactly what the UN resolutions specified. I had those discussions with those foreign ministers and as it were wished them well as they made their contacts. But unsurprisingly, given Saddam Hussein's record of never complying with UN resolutions, they came to nothing."

He added: "We wanted Iraq to comply with the resolutions, we wanted the weapons inspectors back in and that would lead to the suspension of sanctions; that was exactly what the Middle East foreign ministers were doing and that was what the Next Century Foundation was seeking to take forward but there was no direct contact."