Britain urges US to delay war until autumn
By Anton La Guardia and George Jones
Telegraph, UK - 09/01/2003
Britain is pressing for war against Iraq to be delayed for several months, possibly until the autumn, to give weapons inspectors more time to provide clear evidence of new violations by Saddam Hussein.
British officials know that the real decision will be taken by Bush
Ministers and senior officials believe that there is no clear legal case for military action despite the build-up of American and British forces in the Gulf.
Senior diplomats have told the Government that there is a good chance of securing United Nations Security Council approval for military action later in the year if Saddam can be shown unambiguously to be defying the disarmament conditions set out in resolution 1441.
"The Prime Minister has made it clear that, unless there is a smoking gun, the inspectors have to be given time to keep searching," a senior Whitehall source said.
The uncertainty at the heart of the Government has resulted in ministers blowing hot and cold over the prospects for early military action.
The tensions were highlighted on Tuesday when Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, publicly rebuked Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, for playing down the chances of war.
In the Commons yesterday Tony Blair denied that the Cabinet was split or that he was engaging in "dangerous brinkmanship" with Saddam over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
But he was left in no doubt of growing opposition among Labour MPs to joining an American-led attack without convincing proof that Saddam had defied UN demands to dismantle his nuclear, chemical and biological programmes.
The exchanges showed that the Prime Minister could face a major revolt if he went to war without UN backing.
As the tempo of military preparations accelerates, British diplomats say they can win UN support for war only if the inspectors can corner Saddam, either by finding banned weapons and components or by forcing him to deny access to sites or to officials.
"Nobody familiar with the inspections process expects them to come up with the goods in a matter of weeks," a senior British official said.
"There is an assumption that there will be a campaign before the summer because of the heat. The autumn would be just as sensible a time and in the meanwhile Saddam would be thoroughly constrained by the inspectors."
Although the Government has sent a powerful naval force to the region and called up reservists, there has been a significant softening of Whitehall's warlike rhetoric.
Mr Straw said he thought the prospects of war were roughly 60:40 against. No 10 backed Mr Straw in downgrading the importance of the inspectors' first full report to the Security Council on Jan 27.
Officials said the date was "not a deadline"; the inspectors should be given "time and space" to carry out their work. They also insisted that an indefinite game of "cat and mouse" was not acceptable.
Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector, is expected to tell the Security Council that Iraq is co-operating in terms of procedure, but that he needs time to investigate the apparent omissions in the latest declaration of its weapons programmes.
Hard-liners in Washington see Iraq's claim that it has no banned weapons as enough justification for action.
British officials know that the real decision about the war will be taken by President George W Bush. Powerful voices in Washington argue that prevarication would risk allowing another crisis to divert the effort against Iraq and afford Saddam a symbolic victory.
British officials hope that London's reservations and Mr Blair's growing problems in the Labour Party will help to tip the balance in the Bush administration in favour of delay.
But they accept that Britain will go along with an American-led war in almost all circumstances, including a conflict in the spring if Washington is determined to launch an early campaign.
The first Prime Minister's Questions of the year, held at noon instead of 3pm under Commons reforms, was dominated by Iraq.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, highlighting the spat between Mr Hoon and Mr Straw, warned Mr Blair that he could not win public backing for a war if he could not convince his Cabinet and if troops were only "half-prepared for war".