London/Baghdad, Dec. 16 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today Iraq could still avoid war, but British officials were quoted as saying they were “very disappointed” by Baghdad’s declaration of its arms programmes.
Iraqi Opposition figures, meeting in London, haggled over plans for a possible interim leadership of their country should President Saddam Hussein be toppled. They have already agreed on a political blueprint calling for a federal, tolerant Iraq.
In Iraq, UN arms teams set out again for suspect sites after the country’s oil minister said it would cooperate fully with the renewed inspection effort to disprove US and British charges that it still possesses weapons of mass destruction.
In Turkey, a senior military official said Ankara had deployed troops and engineers near its border with northern Iraq to prepare for any US-led attack on Baghdad.
“The reason for the deployments is ensuring that the Turkish military is ready in all ways for the possibility of an Iraq operation,” he told Reuters. He gave no figures but local sources put it at 10,000-15,000 troops.
Writing in Britain’s Financial Times, Blair argued that Britain must continue preparing for military action so that Saddam realised the threat against him was serious. Blair’s comments appeared ahead of his meeting in London with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was expected to warn him that a US-led war on Iraq would have grave consequences for the whole West Asia.
“Sometimes the only way of avoiding war is to be clear that you are prepared to use force,” Blair wrote.
“Military conflict in Iraq is not inevitable. What is inevitable is that Iraq will no longer be allowed to continue threatening its neighbours and defying the UN”.
British officials analysing a huge dossier on Iraqi arms projects that Baghdad handed the UN this month are “very disappointed”, saying much information is missing, the Financial Times reported today.
Their view echoed remarks by US officials and UN diplomats, who said last week the 12,000-page declaration appeared to fall short of the full disclosure required by last month’s UN Security Council resolution 1441.
British junior foreign minister Mike O’Brien said, however, it was too early to pass a definitive judgment.
“Given Saddam Hussein’s long history of dishonesty I suspect you and I are sceptical that this will be a full and open account of its weapons of mass destruction,” he told BBC radio.
“But this isn’t the moment to declare Iraq in breach or indeed in compliance of (UN resolutions).”
Iraq’s oil minister Amir Muhammad Rasheed said yesterday Baghdad expected the US to try to goad it into providing a pretext for war.
“Iraq won’t give the American administration the chance... to create such a confrontation and a crisis,” he told Reuters in an interview.
UN inspectors, who returned last month after a four-year gap to check Iraq’s claim that it is now free of banned weapons, set out today to check more installations. The experts, who now number more than 100, visited at least four sites yesterday.