We must act. The threat posed by Saddam's arsenal is terrifying and real

Robin Cook why the west is talking tough
The Independent, in a critical front page leader column and articles by Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, on Thursday, challenged the Government to explain its position on Iraq, I would like to accept that challenge.

There is nothing fuzzy about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. Nor are the biological and chemical weapons he has developed the invention of comic book writers. They are real. Terrifyingly real, Ask his own people.

It was why the United Nations, as part of the Gulf War ceasefire, insisted on his allowing UN weapons inspectors into Iraq. Saddam agreed to allow them free access both to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and his capability to develop more in the future, as he is obliged to do under Security Council resolutions.

We will hold him to this because the reality is far worse than was known when the Gulf War ended. Despite almost daily Iraqi obstruction and deceit, Unscom - the UN weapon inspectors - have uncovered 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 litres of live chemical weapon agents, 30 chemical weapon warheads, 48 operational missiles and six missile launchers.

Iraq claimed, until faced with the evidence in 1995, that it never had a biological weapon programme at all. But Unscom has discovered a massive plant dedicated to producing anthrax and botulinum toxin. Unscom found 19,000 litres of botulinum toxin. Victims die of paralysis within a week. They found 8,400 litres of anthrax, Four out of five people infected die within a few days. They drown in their own body fluid. A kilogram of anthrax released in a city could kill tens of thousands of people.

But Unscom believes there is much mare still to be found and destroyed. They have evidence that Saddam still has thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons hidden. They believe he still has the capacity to manufacture quickly tonnes of biological weapons. And they know that all missiles and warheads are still not accounted for.

No one can doubt he is prepared to use them because he has done in the past against both his own people and his neighbours, as Robert Fisk has so graphically described. His regime is based on brutality. His human rights record is horrific. He is kept in power solely by force. And he has shown he is ready to use that same force against neighbouring countries.

We can't simply sit back and do nothing to stop him increasing his stockpile of weapons and the means to deliver them. Doing nothing is not an option.

But we are not trying to humiliate Saddam. We are not seeking more control over Iraq. All we are demanding is that he gives Unscom the guaranteed right of access and inspection that he agreed in 1991.

Unscom must have the unfettered access necessary to enable it do its job. That includes access to Saddam's presidential palaces. They are not just lavish homes built at the expense of the suffering of his own people. They are huge military compounds - one of which is 25 square kilometres in size - which contain weapons and documents that Unscom must be able to inspect.

One-off inspections are not enough. Unscom knows from bitter experience that it is only repeat visits which have enabled them to uncover Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. So Iraq's latest compromise does not meet the terms of the UN resolution. It does show that Saddam can be moved. But only if diplomacy is backed by the threat of force.

We are not in the business of risking lives for fuzzy symbolism or posture. We are not 1looking for conflict, let alone do we want to launch a military adventure. We are making every diplomatic effort to reach a solution. We have been for weeks. And we continue to work flat out with our partners to achieve this.

We are also in the lead in trying to help the Iraqi people. We are driving discussions at the UN to expand the oil-for-food programme. Britain is the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Iraq. But it is not the UN which is starving Iraqis. It is Saddam Hussein. There are no sanctions on importing food or medicine. Saddam simply prefers to spend the money he earns from exports of oil on his palaces and rebuilding his military machine.

But the history of our dealings with Saddam show that diplomacy alone will not pull him back from the brink. And in the end, it may require force itself to make him comply with international law. The aim of any military action would be to diminish Saddam's military capabilities, including his ability to deploy, conceal and recreate his weapons of mass destruction capability or threaten his neighbours.

Saddam should not confuse our reluctance to use force with our determination to do so if necessary. The risks are too great to turn a blind eye, no matter how comfortable that option may seem.

The stability of the entire region is at risk. As Tony Blair has made clear, we have a clear duty in the interests of long-term peace to stop Saddam defying the world community. He can not be allowed to continue to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

There is increasing recognition in the international community of the importance of making Saddam comply with the Security Council resolution. If force is needed to ensure Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction, more and more countries accept that Saddam must take full responsibility. But the power to lift this threat lies in his own hands.

The writer is the Foreign Secretary.