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Russia warning evokes missile crisis memory

Washington/Baghdad, March 9: The crisis over Iraq drifted perilously during the weekend towards unnerving similarities to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov explicitly saying that the US would be violating the UN charter if it launches a unilateral attack on Baghdad.

The deepening crisis forced President George W. Bush to stay put at the White House all weekend, said to be for the first time in 25 months since he became President.

There were indications today that Bush would send national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a fluent Russian speaker and Kremlinologist, to Moscow to arrest the rapidly deteriorating relations with Russia.

Bush is also considering sending secretary of state Colin Powell on a whistle-stop tour to selected world capitals ahead of a UN Security Council vote on a resolution giving March 17 as a deadline.

Powell said the US had a “strong chance” of getting nine or 10 states in the 15-member Council to vote for a US-backed draft resolution setting a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair lobbied foreign leaders by phone today, among them Chinese President Jiang Zemin, China’s official media said. But French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin was embarking on a tour of “swing voters” Guinea, Cameroon and Angola in the hope of persuading them to reject it. A defeat of the resolution alone would be unlikely to avert war.

The intense diplomatic activity, unprecedented in the Bush White House so far, came as French President Jacques Chirac called for a summit of world leaders at the UN to thrash out a compromise.

Ivanov said “in case of violation of the UN Charter, the Security Council must assemble, consider the situation and take adequate measures”.

Meanwhile, on Kuwait’s border with Iraq, UN monitors halted routine operations and pulled back all non-essential staff to Kuwait City.

This followed their discovery that huge gaps had been cut in the electric fence separating Kuwait and Iraq, ostensibly for invading US troops from the emirate to march towards Baghdad.

Iraq moved on two fronts: To undercut the American rationale for invasion, it resumed the destruction of its missiles, simultaneously firing a blunderbuss of demands at the UN.

In a statement issued after a Cabinet meeting, Iraq played up its disarmament progress and said it was now sufficiently free of weapons of mass destruction to warrant the cancellation of economic sanctions imposed by the UN a decade ago. There were other demands, too, one of which is that the UN should formally brand the US and Britain “liars”.

Breaking a hallowed American tradition of former presidents avoiding criticism of an incumbent in the White House, Jimmy Carter wrote in The New York Times today that “as a Christian and as a resident who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards...”

The pro-war “coalition of the willing” — as Bush puts it — suffered two setbacks during the weekend.

With the first resignation from the British government to protest against Blair’s support to the US by Andrew Reed, a parliamentary private secretary, the stage has been set for a mutiny by Labour Party MPs.

Ricardo Lagos, President of Chile, a Security Council member, told Bush on telephone that the March 17 deadline for Iraq was too short and that UN weapons inspectors should be given more time.

In its efforts to secure nine votes in the 15-member Security Council for a second resolution on Iraq, which would pave the way for war, Washington is said to be tapping Japan to step up aid to countries which would vote in favour of the resolution.

This and similar attempts at cheque-book diplomacy may explain Powell’s confidence in a string of TV appearances today when he said: “I am encouraged we might get the nine or 10 votes needed to get passage of the resolution, and we will see if somebody wants to veto.”

Diplomats said the voting could be on Tuesday or later.

Washington has repeatedly said it will lead a “coalition of the willing” against Iraq without UN approval, if necessary. But UN authorisation would be of huge value to governments of US allies in placating public misgivings.

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