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Raid on Iraq: UK and France in support role

GIVEN their ambitions to remain world powers, albeit of a decidedly medium size, wild horses could not have stopped Britain and France from taking part in the US-led action against Iraq last night.

But there was a fundamental difference from the war of two years ago: there was no need for the painstaking, months- long building of a coalition with Arab countries to avoid the appearance of an act of US imperialism and prevent them siding with Iraq.

Another difference was that although the British and French were brought in when the time came to strike, they appear not to have been consulted when the US administration first hatched its plot to prompt the overthrow of Saddam Hussein - of which last night's action forms a part.

This failure to consult would have been intolerable to someone like Margaret Thatcher, who spent the run-up to the last war making sure the Americans included her in everything, and who informed President Bush soon after the invasion of Kuwait that 'George, this is no time to go wobbly'.

British officials say privately that though they do not oppose this US plan to help unseat President Saddam, they are more cautious about the project as a whole than they were about war two years ago - but this may be due, in part, to the fact that it was not their idea in the first place, and also to a lack of consensus on who, or what, should succeed President Saddam if the plot works.

Yet when it came to last night's military strike, the action was a typical manifestation of co-operation limited to the 'P3' - the three Western permanent members of the UN Security Council - with the addition of the most crucial Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. President Bush secured the support of the Saudis when he held talks with King Fahd in Riyadh on New Year's Eve.

Sam Gardiner, a retired US air force colonel, said last night he hoped the action would not appear to be a unilateral American move and that, to this end, the participation of the British and French was of greater symbolic than military importance. 'And if the aircraft take off from Saudi Arabia, so much the better,' he added.

Before the war two years ago, the allies spent more than five months building a coalition that took in Arab powers, such as Syria, Egypt and Morocco, to prevent the Arab world siding with Iraq. With the exception of strays such as Jordan and the PLO, the Arabs sided with the allies, and their involvement did not need to be secured a second time.

A key issue then was that if Iraq had dragged Israel into the war, the Arabs would have had to join Iraq against the Jewish state. This time, President Saddam's emasculated military machine is in no position to provoke a conflict on such a scale.