LONDON (Reuters) - Britain set itself apart from top ally the United States,
which has made a "regime change" in Baghdad a priority, saying on Thursday its
main aim in Iraq was to get weapons inspectors back in.
In comments that underlined differences between President Bush and London,
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the main threat was from Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein's suspected capability with weapons of mass destruction.
"What everybody is concerned about...is particularly the threat that Saddam
Hussein poses from both his capability and his record to the security of the region
and the security of the world," Straw told BBC radio.
"The best way of trying to isolate and reduce that threat is by the introduction
of weapons inspections," he said. "The crucial issue here is weapons inspectors."
Bush by contrast has made the ousting of Saddam a top priority, saying the
Iraqi leader is developing weapons of mass destruction and must be stopped before
he can use them against the United States and its allies, or share them with terrorist
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has signaled he would back U.S.-led military
action, but faces growing opposition from members of his own left-of-center Labour
Party, church leaders and, according to some reports, members of his own cabinet.
Challenged on whether there was any international coalition that would back
military action against Iraq, Straw ducked the question. He instead said: "What
there is, is an overwhelming international consensus against what Saddam Hussein
has been doing and failing to do in Iraq."
Bush said on Wednesday that he would continue to consult with his allies on
the issue of Iraq but again repeated his view that "regime change is in the interests
of the world."
Straw said Britain would of course be happy if Saddam were to be removed, but
stressed: "The key part of our approach is to get the weapons inspectors back.
"We have to say military action remains an option...because of the threat posed
by Saddam Hussein. But if there is another way of dealing with that threat then
plainly the case for military action recedes," he said.
Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats,
said Straw's comments were evidence of a clear rift between the transatlantic
"The foreign secretary's remarks place Britain in a quite different position
from the hawks in the Bush administration," he said in a statement.
"The UK government should now be leading the charge to compel Saddam Hussein
to readmit the U.N. inspectors with full, unfettered and open access to every
installation they wish."
But a spokesman for the Foreign Office said it was wrong to suggest the Foreign
Secretary's comments showed a difference in approach.
"The U.S. and other members of the (U.N.) Security Council have called on numerous
occasions for the reintroduction of weapons inspections in Iraq. And the U.S.
has made clear, like us, that no decision has been taken to launch military action,"
Saddam has made various overtures to the United Nations in recent weeks about
allowing teams of U.N. arms inspectors to return after they left four years ago.
Last week Iraq asked the United Nations for further technical talks in Baghdad
before allowing inspectors back in, but there has so far been no formal U.N. response.
The weapons experts, who went into Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, inspected
and destroyed weapons before leaving in December 1998 on the eve of a U.S.-British
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