Bush and Blair's lethal endgame

The Prime Minister returns from the US with a new cause for war: the Iraqi disruption of inspectors.

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 02 February 2003 01:00

The United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq live in the kind of hunted atmosphere that Western visitors to the Soviet Union endured during the Cold War, according to a document now circulating in Whitehall.

They are outnumbered 200-1 in a battle of wits against one of the world's most feared intelligence services, as they pursue the near-impossible task of hunting for illegal weaponry in a country the size of France. Before they even set foot in Baghdad, Iraqi intelligence runs a check on them. In Iraq, they have had their phone calls monitored and their meeting rooms bugged.

The document goes on: "The Iraqis disrupt their work and daily lives by staging demonstrations wherever they go and having stooges make threatening approaches to inspectors. The whole effect is one of intimidation."

This graphic language is to be found in a Downing Street briefing paper, reputed to have been written personally by the Prime Minister's alter ego, Alastair Campbell. It will form a centrepiece to the case which Tony Blair will make during a critical meeting with the French President, Jacques Chirac, on Tuesday.

The French view is that while there are weapons inspectors in Iraq, there is hope of progress towards disarmament, and no need for war. Mr Blair thinks he can persuade them that the issue is not whether the inspectors can uncover the weapons, but whether they are being helped or obstructed by the Iraqis.

Iraqi obstruction is also expected to be the theme of the presentation which Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, will make to the UN on Wednesday – the day when the Americans have promised to produce the clinching evidence against Iraq. On both sides of the Atlantic, the rude reception given to 108 UN inspectors has become a pretext for war. However, the inspectors themselves are not so "intimidated" that they want to pull out of Iraq. Their head, Hans Blix, was clear yesterday that his people are prepared to carry on for as long as they are asked to. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have had eight years of inspections, then four years without inspections, and we have only been operative for two months. That is a rather short time to call it a day."

On the other hand, he added they would not "positively" ask for more time, because he was not sure that the inspections will ever be satisfactorily completed. Considering what his staff had been through, Mr Blix was admirably calm as he faced the 15-man UN Security Council on Monday. Unusually, the council met in open session, allowing the world to watch as the 75-year old-Swedish diplomat contrasted Iraq's behaviour with that of the South African government, which welcomed UN inspectors because it genuinely wanted to rid itself of nuclear weapons.

"Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance – not even today – of the disarmament,which was demanded of it," he said.

It was a harsher verdict that many had expected to hear, harsh enough to be seized upon in Washington and in London as sufficient reason to go to war, unless there was a dramatic change in Saddam Hussein's behaviour.

In his State of the Union address the next day, George Bush warned: "We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: if Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him."

Mr Bush has an advantage denied to other Western leaders: that US public opinion is broadly in favour of war. In the UK, opinion polls point to a large minority who would oppose war under any circumstances, and an outright majority who would oppose a military strike that was not directly sanctioned by the UN.

On the same day, Tony Blair was being subjected to an undignified interrogation at one of Labour's National Executive Committee's infrequent meetings. These meetings used to be spent humiliating the Labour leader but, under Mr Blair, a reformed NEC has been so well behaved that its existence has been virtually forgotten. Last week, trade union representatives on the committee broke with tradition by subjecting Mr Blair to a series of sharp questions about Iraq. They appeared to be in the mood to vote for a proposal put forward by Mark Seddon, editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune, which suggested that if the US went to war without direct UN backing, Britain should refuse to fight alongside them.

Fortunately for Mr Blair, the political argument was adroitly diverted into a question of procedure. In the end, true to some of the stranger Labour traditions, they voted not to vote.

Although this might have extricated Mr Blair from one potential embarrassment, any idea that he could escape anti-war sentiment in the Labour Party was dispelled when he faced the Commons on Wednesday, enduring more barracking from MPs behind him than from the Opposition.

One objection often heard from left-wing Labour MPs is that Mr Blair spends too much time consorting with certain right-wing foreign leaders. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and US President George Bush are probably the three who irritate the Labour left most.

As if to emphasise just how little he cares for their opinion, Mr Blair devoted the second half of the week to a round of diplomatic contacts. First he played host to Mr Berlusconi in Downing Street, to the sound of an anti-war demonstration outside. Then he flew to Madrid for talks with Mr Aznar before flying on to Washington for a war council with Mr Bush.

Mr Blair also exacerbated tensions across Europe by putting his name to an article backing the US, signed by eight heads of government, which appeared in The Times and other European papers on Thursday. It later emerged that the idea had been dreamt up by staff on the The Wall Street Journal, although the article was drafted in Mr Aznar's office. It was a deliberate repudiation of the idea that the French and German governments spoke for all of Europe.

None of the signatories thought it necessary to give the French or the Germans advance notice of the article. The Greeks, who currently hold the presidency of the EU, were also offended that they had not been forewarned.

Meanwhile in Washington, Mr Blair was accorded more than four hours of Mr Bush's time, most of it taken up with a discussion of the Iraq crisis.

In the Grand Foyer, where they made their public appearance side by side, a Union Flag and a Stars and Stripes were hung symbolically crossed over one another. Yet all the symbolism and their shared detestation of Saddam Hussein could not conceal the tactical gulf threatening to open up between them.

Mr Blair was emphatic that the right way forward is to secure a second UN resolution authorising a military strike before it is launched, and that the way to a second resolution is to allow the UN inspectors sufficient time.

Talking to journalists, Mr Blair was remarkably confident that the Iraqis would be shown to be deliberately obstructing the inspectors and that when the proof was laid before the UN Security Council, the result would be a resolution authorising war.

All this sounded academic when listening to Mr Bush. He said, bluntly, that the US's attitude to its perceived enemies changed after the World Trade Centre attacks. Now the philosophy is that "we must deal with threats before they hurt the American people".

Asked about the value of a second UN resolution, Mr Bush replied: "This is a matter of weeks, not months. Any attempt to drag the process on for months will be resisted by the United States."

He continued: "And as I understand the Prime Minister – I'm loath to put words in his mouth – but he's also said 'weeks, not months'."

In fact, the President was putting words into Mr Blair's mouth. Even after the meeting, the Prime Minister repeated that there is no deadline; the Iraqis have not been told that they must capitulate within six weeks or be attacked, and the next UN inspectors' report need not be the last.

In Washington, Mr Bush's phrase "weeks, not months" was interpreted to mean what it said, that war will begin before the end of March. By contrast, a Blair official claimed that it was no more than "an indicative time frame".

The medium-term future is not hard to predict. Within the next two months, the US will go to war with Iraq, with British troops fighting alongside them. Before the shooting starts, Mr Blair will concentrate intense diplomatic effort on achieving a second UN resolution, which he seems very sure he will get.

But there is a nightmare possibility for Mr Blair: that the French will not budge, and the US will go to war without UN backing. That would precipitate a domestic crisis which would split the Labour Party and possibly bring down the Prime Minister.

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