The Presidential Inauguration: Iraq hopes for new chapter in US relations

IRAQ yesterday greeted the inauguration of President Bill Clinton with the hope that it would open a new chapter of relations with America. By contrast, a government newspaper fired a parting shot at George Bush, advising him to commit suicide to get rid of his obsession with Iraq. 'For Bush, suicide is the best remedy,' Al-Jumhouriyah said.

The Information Minister, Hamid Yousef Hammadi, described the conflict as not between Iraq and the international community but between Iraq and the Arab world, on the one hand, and the US specifically of Mr Bush, on the other. 'We hope,' the minister said, 'that President Clinton will seek to establish a relationship of equality that ensures the legitimate interests between Iraq and the Arabs on the one hand, and the US on the other.'

This analysis of the forces ranged against Iraq conveniently overlooked the 28 countries, many of them Arab, that had joined in the coalition against Baghdad, even if the most recent US-led attacks have stretched to the limit the cohesion of the coalition. At the same time, Iraq observed its commitment not to seek confrontation with US planes over the northern and southern no-fly zones as a gesture of intent. UN weapons inspectors stranded in Bahrain for more than two weeks leave today for Baghdad to resume work suspended by a confrontation with Iraq.

In London, however, John Major yesterday urged President Clinton to treat with scepticism President Saddam's offer of a ceasefire. Downing Street officials reinforced the Prime Minister's message, warning that President Saddam could not be trusted because he had 'lied through his teeth' since the Gulf war.

Mr Major underlined British concern at France's decision to disown the attack by US forces with cruise missiles on the nuclear plant near Baghdad. He made it clear the French had been consulted and had approved the raid. 'This was a raid made by the US rather than the allies because they had the equipment on site to do it, but there was discussion between the allies, including the French,' said Mr Major. He said the legal position was clear. 'This was within international law and I think the US were wholly justified.'

In Washington it emerged that a military coup against President Saddam, of which the US had advance notice, came close to succeeding last June, according to Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's National Security Adviser. He said it was foiled only because the Iraqi leader 'has one of the most efficient security systems in the world'.

The plotters were assured they would receive US aid if they succeeded. There were reports from Iraqi emigres last year of an attempted coup which had been defeated by forces loyal to President Saddam, but it was not previously believed that it had come close to unseating the Iraqi leader.

Gen Scowcroft told the Washington Post just before stepping down from office that, while the US had a covert plan to oust President Saddam, it had not plotted his assassination. He emphasised the degree to which the outgoing administration had tried to balance the competing threats from Iraq and Iran. He said the Tehran government was 'potentially the bigger threat'. An unnamed government official was quoted as saying that, while the US had promised support to the men plotting the Iraqi coup if they succeeded, it had not provided military, logistical or financial aid.

Andrew Marr, page 25

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