Hostile nations could acquire cruise missiles, whether rudimentary or sophisticated, to launch attacks on the US or American targets abroad, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, warned yesterday.
Mr Rumsfeld alerted the White House to the danger in a memo several weeks ago, The Washington Post reported yesterday. It prompted an immediate debate inside the National Security Council on how the US might react.
Meanwhile, the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, issued a veiled criticism of Washington for talking up the military option instead of pursuing a return to Iraq of his weapons teams.
"If the Iraqis conclude that an invasion by someone is inevitable then they might conclude that it is not very meaningful to have inspections," Mr Blix said in an interview with David Frost on BBC television.
"If inspectors are allowed in and if they are given really unfettered access with no delays... then this might play an important role and we would be eager to do that and to help towards a non-belligerent solution," Mr Blix said.
Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has repeatedly warned the US against launching an attack.
Iraq is also at the heart of Mr Rumsfeld's concerns about cruise missiles. "The issue has gotten people's attention," an administration official said. "It's something that has recently bubbled to the surface as a result of Rumsfeld throwing it out for discussion." He called his memo, "The Growing Threat Posed by Cruise Missiles".
Pentagon officials worry that countries such as Iraq and Iran, as well as terrorist networks including al-Qa'ida, may be striving to develop cruise missiles that could be launched from ships adjacent to population centres in the US or from any kind of platform close to American targets around the world.
The latest intelligence reports suggests that at least 81 countries have cruise missiles of some kind, totalling more than 70,000 weapons. All such weapons could theoretically be fitted not just with explosive warheads, but with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads.
Ironically, it has been the success of American cruise missile technology in hitting targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans in recent years that may be encouraging its enemies to acquire such weapons. Few experts believe, however, that the highly sophisticated technology of the American Tomahawk missile is widely available yet.
Mr Rumsfeld's memo could prompt the White House to broaden its approach to missile defence. Mr Rumsfeld is to discuss the issue with President George Bush at his ranch on Wednesday.
While ballistic weapons arc through the sky over great distances, cruise missiles have to be fired much closer to their targets. They pose particular threats, however, because they fly low and can elude radar. Today, the US has a fairly scattershot approach to defending itself against such weapons. It would take significant work to build a network to protect the entire US coastline against them.
* Russia confirmed yesterday it was set to sign a $40bn economic and trade cooperation agreement with Iraq.
But Oleg Buklemeshev, an adviser to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, said the five-year deal to co-operate in areas ranging from oil to electric energy and railroads would not violate UN sanctions.
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