Baghdad/London, Jan. 28 (Reuters): Britain said today Iraq had clearly ignored UN disarmament demands, rallying behind President George W. Bush as he prepared to set out his case for war to American voters and sceptical allies.
Warning Baghdad to stop its “gameplaying”, British foreign secretary Jack Straw said it was in “material breach” of UN Security Council resolutions, echoing Washington for the first time with lawyerly wording that lays Iraq open to an attack.
Bush is expected to use his State of the Union address to argue that war is becoming unavoidable after weapons inspectors told the UN yesterday that Iraq was dragging its feet in complying with their demands.
The US President has so far failed to rally much of the world behind his hawkish position, leaving many unconvinced by his argument that Iraq poses an immediate threat to its own neighbours and could provide lethal weaponry to the sort of anti-Western groups that carried out the September 11 attacks. But in one sign of change, Russia, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, signalled a tougher line against Iraq, urging it not to hamper the inspectors’ work.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein warned army officers to be vigilant for any sign of treason. US officials have backed the idea of amnesty for senior Iraqis to encourage a change of leadership short of war, such as a coup by the armed forces.
“Treason is an unmanly act... It does not frighten. However, in times of inattention, it may produce a treacherous act,” newspapers quoted Saddam as saying to a group of officers. Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said Baghdad was prepared to step up its cooperation but warned it had handed out hundreds of thousands of weapons and would attack American troops assembled in neighbouring Kuwait if necessary. “They will be received with bullets, not flowers,” Aziz told Canada’s CBC television in an interview in Baghdad. Financial analysts said the inspectors’ report seemed to make war virtually inevitable and looked to Bush’s speech for some idea of a start date, with estimates focusing on early March. European stocks rebounded, gold lost some of its recent gains and the dollar steadied as markets braced for the address, while the new threat to Kuwait from Iraq, which invaded in 1990, lifted oil prices to $32.70 a barrel after a dip yesterday.
Washington reiterated it was losing patience with Iraq after chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said Iraq was testing prohibited long-range missiles and was evasive over possible chemical and biological agents.
Britain has consistently backed America but had until now avoided directly alleging a “material breach”, which Washington argues is the trigger for war as agreed by the UN.
“As of today, according to the reports we have received, Iraq is now in further material breach. So it is profoundly serious for Iraq,” Straw told BBC radio, referring to a breach of November’s UN resolution 1441 demanding Iraqi disarmament.
Most other key UN Security Council members say the inspectors need more time to complete their job and that a new UN resolution is required to authorise any attack.
Current EU president Greece urged Iraq and the international community to seize a “window of opportunity” for Baghdad to disarm. But in a reflection of differences over the issue, Greek foreign minister George Papandreou avoided saying how much longer the inspectors should take.
The Bush administration said a new UN resolution before any military action would be “desirable” but not mandatory. France reiterated its opposition to any unilateral military strike on Iraq and China repeated that the inspectors should decide themselves how much time they need.