President George Bush was facing overwhelming pressure from across the world last night to step back from the brink of military action to oust Saddam Hussein.
Alarmed by growing rhetoric from leading hawks in Washington, key countries from China to Saudi Arabia warned of the devastating consequences of a US-led assault against Iraq. Even Downing Street, which has gone out of its way to support Mr Bush, highlighted increasing tensions between London and Washington when it insisted that UN weapons inspectors should be given a chance to visit Iraq.
As Tony Blair flew home from his French holiday, his official spokesman said Saddam Hussein could "resolve the issue" by giving unfettered access to UN weapons inspectors. The remarks were in contrast to US vice-president Dick Cheney's insistence this week that America should be free to take "pre-emptive action" against Iraq because President Saddam had rejected a "viable" inspections system.
Such harsh rhetoric, which included a warning from the US defense secretary,
Donald Rumsfeld, that the Iraqi leader was behaving like Adolf Hitler, prompted
a flood of warnings on the dangers of military action.
Saudi Arabia, which has already insisted that the US cannot use its bases in the kingdom for an attack on Iraq, warned that the US had no right to oust Saddam. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told the BBC it was up to the Iraqi people to decide who should be their leader.
"If they don't have the option, squeezing them and attacking them will force them into backing their government, rather than the reverse," the prince said. "What makes us so gullible as to think we know what is better for the Iraqi people than the Iraqi people themselves?"
China reassured Baghdad that it opposed military action. During talks in Beijing, its foreign minister, Tang Jiaxun, told his Iraqi counterpart, Naji Sabri, that "using force or threats of force" would "increase regional instability and tensions".
Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, called for the return of inspectors, adding pointedly: "The UN is not agitating for military action."
Such warnings may fall on deaf ears in Washington after Mr Rumsfeld said that Mr Bush was prepared to take unilateral action against Iraq. Speaking to 3,000 marines in California on Tuesday, Mr Rumsfeld said: "I've found over the years that when our country does make the right judgments, the right decisions, that other countries do cooperate and they do participate."
Mr Rumsfeld even likened Washington's position to Winston Churchill's wilderness
years in the 1930s when the future wartime prime minister was a lonely voice warning
of the dangers of Hitler.
The prime minister's official spokesman insisted yesterday that he would not be drawn into a "running commentary" on every utterance by US cabinet ministers. He also insisted that Mr Blair and Mr Bush were "100% agreed" on the need to deal with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
But the foreign secretary Jack Straw will today reiterate Britain's determination to give weapons inspectors a chance to return to Iraq. In his formal response to the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee report on the war against terrorism, Mr Straw will make clear that Britain is considering whether to push for a deadline on an agreement over weapons inspectors.
Britain's stress on the importance of weapons inspectors is partly designed to reassure Labour MPs. It also highlights genuine unease at Washington's bellicosity - a point that was underlined by the former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Writing in the Washington Post, the architect of the Dayton peace accord on Bosnia said that a senior adviser to Mr Blair had told him that Washington "was giving Blair nothing" in return for his unstinting support".
Mr Holbrooke continued: "At least half a dozen have spoken to me about their concerns in the last six months. They're telling me: 'It's not that they don't listen to us. It's that they don't take into account the prime minister and his government's need for us to go through the security council system on this [Iraq]."
However, senior British military sources said Mr Bush had already made up his
mind to attack Iraq. The US was beginning to "warm up its public relations machine,
to prepare the general public", one said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002