The message from Bush is clear: War against Saddam is inevitable

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The Independent Online

George Bush vowed to wage an unrelenting war against terrorism and the states that sponsored it yesterday, and called on the rest of the "civilised world" to join him.

Speaking at a White House ceremony exactly six months after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, the American President did not mention Iraq by name, but left no doubt he was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

States that sponsored terrorism were seeking weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups hungry for these weapons "would use them without a hint of conscience".

The anti-terror coalition had to confront these facts. "They cannot be denied. Inaction is not an option," Mr Bush said.

Dick Cheney, the US Vice- President, warned that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction must be dismantled before President Saddam formed an alliance with al-Qa'ida or other terrorist groups.

Speaking after almost two hours of talks with Tony Blair in London, Mr Cheney said: "We know that clearly, given their past track record, they [Saddam's regime] would use such weapons should they be able to acquire them. We have to be concerned about the potential marriage between a terrorist organisation like al-Qa'ida and those who hold or who are proliferating knowledge about weapons of mass destruction."

However, Downing Street admitted last night there was still no evidence linking Iraq to the 11 September attack.

As Mr Bush addressed an audience of 1,300 dignitaries, including 100 ambassadors in Washington, his resolve was strengthened by a new opinion poll showing Americans united behind him.

A massive 88 per cent endorsed his handling of the war against terrorism, and a large majority of his countrymen supported the dispatch of US troops to carry the war into other countries. More than three quarters of respondents were confident America would not be bogged down in another unwinnable Vietnam.

Mr Bush spoke as the 10-day battle of Shah-i-Kot, the bloodiest of the ground war so far in Afghanistan, was winding down. But, he warned, "Shah-i-kot won't be the last battle in Afghanistan, and there will be other battles beyond Afghanistan."

Every terrorist, he said, "must be made to live as an international fugitive with no place to hide, no government to hide behind and not even a safe place to sleep". The US expected every country to "remove the terrorist parasites that threaten their own countries and the peace of the world". If friendly governments needed help America would provide resources, he promised, citing the Philippines, Georgia and Yemen.

The mission, Mr Bush declared, would only end "when the work is finished", when terror networks of global reach have been destroyed – "and they will be destroyed".

But in contrast to the recent go-it-alone approach in Washington, Mr Bush went out of his way to stress the importance of the international alliance against terrorism. He praised some 20 countries, and referred repeatedly to the "community of civilised nations" engaged in a common struggle.

Mr Blair is believed to have warned the US Vice-President that it was vital to create as wide an international coalition as possible for any action against Iraq.

Mr Cheney told a joint press conference with Mr Blair at Downing Street that if United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed back into Iraq, it would have to be "a go anywhere, anytime" inspection regime.

Mr Cheney, who will also visit 11 Middle East countries, said he would "engage in frank discussions and solicit opinion from our friends and allies". Both Mr Cheney and Mr Blair played down any link between Iraq and the Middle East after warnings that attacking Iraq could undermine efforts to revive the peace process.

The Prime Minister said: "There is a threat from Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired. It is not in doubt at all. The coalition that we have assembled has acted in a calm and a measured way and this will continue." Downing Street emphasised that no decisions were taken about military action, saying: "It is important to get away from the idea that something is imminent."

The domestic pressures on Mr Blair to act with caution mounted when David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, joined a number of cabinet ministers expressing doubts. He called for an "intelligent debate" about Iraq's weapons and added: "Britain has not only been a good friend [to America] but the best friend and best friends sometimes tell you what you don't want to hear."

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