Drum-beating in Washington and London for military action against Iraq could deter Saddam Hussein from readmitting weapons inspectors, the head of the UN monitoring team said yesterday.
Speaking after a week in which the US stepped up its war-like rhetoric, Hans Blix acknowledged that if an invasion seemed inevitable the Iraqis "might conclude that it's not very meaningful to have inspections".
Baghdad had not yet responded to his attempts to agree to the practical steps, such as flights, travel and accommodation needed for the team to enter Iraq, he said.
His comments on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost were made amid indications that powerful voices in Washington regard "regime change" in Iraq as a higher priority than resuming inspections.
President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, added to the speculation that a US-led attack would take place when she set out the "very powerful moral case" for removing the Iraqi leader last week.
Her comments prompted renewed alarm among Labour party critics of British support for the US position, backbenchers warning Tony Blair of the extent of opposition and urging further debate.
The Labour general secretary, David Triesman, insisted last night that the leadership would not be able to stifle discussion of the issue at the party conference next month.
He told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour that, while some might argue that a detailed discussion was unnecessary while the government had made no decision on military action, "if there's a sufficient body of opinion at conference that wants a debate, they get a debate".
He had "absolutely no doubt" there would be a debate, he added.
As he was speaking the outspoken Labour backbencher Bob Marshall Andrews insisted on Breakfast with Frost that a large section of his party was ready to rebel against a move towards war. "I have never known anything as serious as this," he said.
Downing Street stuck to its line that nothing has been agreed and no conflict was imminent, refusing to comment on reports that it has asked the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to rule on the legality of an attack made without a new mandate from the UN security council.
In Washington the White House insisted that President Bush would "clearly explain" to Americans any decision to try to remove Saddam Hussein from power by military means.
The president's communications director, Dan Bartlett, said: "President Bush also understands that if we go forward, he will do so in a way that will clearly be articulated to the American people."
But many US allies - including key Middle Eastern states - are resisting the push to depose the Iraqi dictator, arguing that an invasion cannot be justified without firm proof that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction.
Bahrain, a key US ally in the Gulf, yesterday joined Iran in calling for respect for "Iraq's territorial integrity and non-interference in Iraq's internal affairs".
American plans to isolate Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein will be further damaged by an economic and trade cooperation agreement between Russia and Iraq confirmed yesterday.
The $40bn deal will not violate the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Russia insisted.
But the agreement is certain to damage relations between Moscow and Washington, already cooled by Russian plans to step up nuclear cooperation with Iran, part of Mr Bush's "axis of evil".
New evidence of efforts by Washington hawks to underline the US need to defend
itself against mounting threats came with the publication of a leaked memo from
the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to the White House, warning of the spread
of cruise missiles among hostile nations.
The Washington Post said he had urged the government to mount an intensified effort to defend the country against possible attack.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002