It's not only Saddam who loves to bluff

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IT WASN'T long before the first fruits of the tougher line from the US Pentagon and the British MoD towards Saddam Hussein appeared. On Monday, it was reported that a US missile had crashed into a residential suburb in Basra, killing 11 people and injuring a dozen or so more. At around the same time another US missile crossed the border into Iran, landing near the city of Abadan. This was the second reported occasion of a precision missile finding its way imprecisely to the wrong country in as many months.

In London the following morning, veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell attempted to launch his Bombardment of Iraq (Parliamentary Approval Bill) in the House of Commons. Dalyell is no apologist for Saddam's regime. The other year he spent the summer recess travelling in Iran by mini-bus. "The most striking thing," he told me on his return "were the memorials to the dead of the Iran/Iraq war in every village square." It was carnage of First World War proportions, certainly fuelled on the Iraqi side by munitions supplied by the West. Dalyell's Bill had the support of MPs from all parties: not surprisingly, many agreed with his proposals that Parliament deserved to be consulted before the next missiles were despatched in Baghdad's direction. The desultory government response to Dalyell's initiative came in a decision not to oppose his Bill - and not to support it either. There was no vote.

The earlier December debate on Iraq, also initiated by Labour MPs hostile to a military venture without the backing of the UN Security Council, had gone the same way. Government whips made a deal with the Tory front bench not to provide tellers. The prospect of Tory MPs flooding the government lobbies as Labour MPs voted with their feet and stayed away was perhaps too bitter a pill. There was no vote.

Neither was there a vote on the merits of the resolution on Iraq that some of us had put before Labour's NEC when it met last week. The resolution was pretty anodyne. It considered that the Iraqi dictatorship might have been strengthened by recent allied attacks, the UN Security Council may have been undermined by the action of the US and Britain and that the stated objective, namely the return of Unscom weapons inspectors, had not materialised. Perhaps it was time to change course, to consider other options that might encourage a permanent peace. There was precious little chance of the resolution being agreed, yet a debate was rejected by the NEC on the specious grounds that the Prime Minister had explained the Government's position at a previous meeting back in November - before the allied raids had even got underway. Instead of a debate and a vote, Robin Cook was given another opportunity to spell out the Government's position. He was good enough to remind the NEC and a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that the Left had opposed the Iraqi regime when Saddam Hussein was a leader with whom the West could, and did, do business. But he spoiled it when he claimed there was widespread international support (including the Arab League) for Britain and the US.

If it does support us, the Arab League has a funny way of showing it. Its members met last week. They passed a communique by unanimous vote, and without Iraq in attend- ance. The communique backed the French initiative to lift economic sanctions, opposed any future allied bombardment and expressed "deep concern" at that which had already taken place. And what about those other supporters? The Pope is deeply troubled. The Roman Catholic Archbishop for the US Army has told President Clinton not to launch another attack. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wants jaw, jaw, and not war, war. In London, before Christmas, Michael Portillo said that on Iraq "Tony Benn might have a point this time". Mr Benn has long been a critic of the Government's actions in Iraq.

Had I been given an opportunity for a one-to-one with Robin Cook, I would have asked him if he agreed with Denis Healey that Britain's action in Iraq had lost us many friends. I would have asked him how it was that allied missiles reportedly managed to take out 80 per cent of targets, when we didn't know where those targets were. And if we didn't know where those targets were, what was - and is - the risk of bombs falling on anthrax dumps? I would have asked him if he thought that economic sanctions against this particular hard-headed dictatorship were working. But I think I would really have wanted to know if he agrees with the former head of the UN's humanitarian relief programme director to Iraq, Dennis Halliday, that Saddam's military threat is now exaggerated and that what remains of its arsenal can be tackled only as part of a regional initiative which would include Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile.

Robin Cook's forensic skills are legendary. He must know in his heart that there needs to be a change of policy. But for now those legendary attributes seem to have abandoned him. No votes, no debates. Just waiting for something to turn-up.

Mark Seddon is the editor of `Tribune'.