London, Feb. 13 (Reuters): Staunch US ally Britain, struggling to rally support for war, today seized on a finding that Iraq has missiles of prohibited range as proof Baghdad is defying the UN.
The missile report gave Prime Minister Tony Blair fresh ammunition in the war of words among supposed Nato allies and the five members of the UN Security Council which have the power to veto any new resolution authorising military action.
A panel of independent arms experts told the UN the range of Iraq’s al Samoud 2 rockets exceeded by up to 40 km the 150-km limit laid down by UN arms controls.
“If these reports are correct... it is very serious,” Blair said after talks with Australian Premier John Howard.
“It would be not just a failure to declare and disclose information but a breach of resolution 1441,” Blair said, referring to the November Security Council resolution threatening “serious consequences” if Iraq failed to disarm.
Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, arriving in Italy to put his case to Europe, countered: “We are still within limits that are decided by the UN.”
The issue will reach a climax at the UN today when, at 1515 GMT, the chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei report to the Security Council.
President Vladimir Putin was quoted in the French press as saying Russia might block further UN steps against Iraq.
“If it is necessary, we will use our veto, but I do not think it is helpful to get into debate about this at the moment,” he said. Russian officials at the UN called the missile issue “a technical matter” rather than a serious violation of arms controls.
China has lined up with Russia and France to give the doves an apparent majority among the five Security Council veto powers over the US and Britain, who say they want a further UN resolution but will go to war without one if necessary.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said a majority of the Council’s 15 members supported Germany’s position.
“Together with France, Russia and other partners the government is doing all it can for a peaceful resolution. That is possible and we are fighting for that,” he told parliament.
US secretary of state Colin Powell, who will attend tomorrow’s Security Council meeting, said decision time was near.
“We are reaching a moment of truth as to whether or not this matter will be resolved peacefully, or will be resolved by military conflict,” he told US lawmakers tomorrow.
As Washington called up more military reservists, talks were under way on the language of a new UN disarmament resolution on Iraq, a White House spokesman said.
Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, another Nato and Security Council member, promised President George W. Bush he would help build support for a new resolution authorising force.
Washington has more than 150,000 Reserve and National Guard forces on duty, the most since the 1991 Gulf War.
Warplanes taking part in US-British no-fly zone patrols attacked Iraqi battlefield missiles for a second successive day yesterday. The US military said the missiles posed a threat to coalition forces massing in neighbouring Kuwait.
Both the US and Britain, who argue that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction which might fall into the hands of terrorist groups, were on alert for attacks at home. Jeep-borne, anti-aircraft missiles were deployed in Washington. Troops patrolled London’s main airport, Heathrow.
Nato grappled with one of the worst crises of its 54-year-old history, after France, Germany and Belgium blocked plans to send military aid to Turkey to help protect it against Iraq as a premature preparation for war.
German defence minister Peter Struck said today the deadlock would be broken by Saturday.