The diplomats said that even if Iraq sticks by its offer to permit UN weapons inspectors to use their own aircraft and stop its retrieval forays into Kuwait, President Saddam would stage new acts of defiance which will eventually justify further allied action.
There are some 350 UN personnel in Iraq, most of them in the Kurdish north.
The ban on UN aircraft announced by Iraq last week delayed the arrival of UN teams charged with scrapping Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile potential. Announcing the request to resume flights yesterday, a UN spokesman said there were 70 UN personnel waiting for permission, including a chemical weapons destruction team.
The Foreign Office believed the allied action would not harm two Britons imprisoned in Iraq. They pointed out that another Briton, now released, Ian Richter, was held unharmed in a Baghdad jail during the Gulf war. Paul Ride and Michael Wainwright were being visited by Russian diplomats acting on Britain's behalf. 'If the Iraqis think that by holding these guys they will deter us, they're dead wrong,' said one official.
Mr Ride's wife, Julie, said yesterday she had an assurance from Iraq that the two men would not be used as human shields. 'What is going on in Iraq now with America, Britain, France and anybody else is totally political and Paul and Martin are being held on border offences,' she said.
Mr Ride, a catering manager from east London, was convicted of crossing illegally into Iraq in August and jailed for seven years. Mr Wainwright, from West Yorkshire, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on the same charge.
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