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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK
Analysis: UK forges new alliances

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Jack Straw
Straw says the UK and US could go it alone
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's Gulf tour and comments at the European Union summit in Athens have shed more light on the diplomatic fall-out of the war in Iraq.

A vigorous handshake from the beaming King of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifah, who bounded out of his palace to greet Mr Straw.

In Kuwait, a full entourage led by the foreign minister was waiting at the foot of the plane as Mr Straw emerged onto the tarmac.

You could sense the relief that Saddam Hussein's regime had collapsed relatively quickly and the regrettable business of war would soon be more or less over.

Across the Gulf - in Qatar and Saudi Arabia too - Jack Straw had come to thank and be thanked by friendly Arab states for their help in deposing Iraq's infamous leader.

But the British mood was not exactly jubilant.

There was more than a hint of defensiveness, a search for approval to confirm that the gamble the US and British coalition took in going to war had been worth it.

"I didn't meet one Middle East leader who was not hoping and praying that Saddam Hussein would go," said Mr Straw, when asked if he was concerned at the anger and dismay the conflict and its human cost had caused across the Arab world.

Delicate conversation

This was a trawl for support from regional allies to shore up the post-war coalition.

Syrian worker hangs flags next to portrait of President Bashar al-Assad
The US and UK want more co-operation from Syria
But it was also a selective tour, a visit to those most likely to be onside.

It was left to a junior minister, Mike O'Brien, to pay the much trickier calls on Iran and Syria, keeping as far out of the public eye as possible.

Those were delicate conversations.

British diplomats acknowledge that Iran has played a canny hand: muting its criticism of the US-led military invasion and resisting the temptation to meddle.

But, as the uncertain post-war architecture begins to shift into place, no one is quite certain what Tehran's long-term designs on Iraq are - and whether it might seek to exploit its religious affinity with Iraq's large Shia population.

The consensus in London and Washington seems to be that it is now high time Syria joined the ranks of Arab nations prepared to co-operate

Syria is far more problematic.

Mr O'Brien's task was to deliver a stern message.

Britain may not go as far as American officials in hinting that Syria too could face sanctions, or even find itself the next target for military intervention.

But London shares the view that Syria has been "playing it fast and loose in the past few months," as one senior British official put it.

So much for inviting the young President Bashar al-Assad to London at the end of last year for tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Mr Straw even labelled Syria an "apologist" for the old Iraq. Not only allegedly supplying military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime up to the last minute, and developing a worrying chemical programme with possible military applications, but also seemingly giving sanctuary to fleeing members of the Iraqi regime.

The consensus in both London and Washington seems to be that it is now high time Syria made a strategic choice and joined the ranks of Arab nations prepared to co-operate.

'New reality in Iraq'

"Syria needs to appreciate there is a new reality in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein has gone, and Syria's decisions need to reflect that," said Mr Straw.

But this new reality Mr Straw likes to talk about extends far beyond Iraq.

What is emerging as the war begins to wind down and thoughts turn to what comes after, is that Britain is already trying to work out a strategy to avoid being trapped in the middle again - if the arguments over who should run Iraq end up in another disastrous UN Security Council wrangle.

Significantly, it seems London has already taken the decision that it would back America and once again sideline the United Nations if that was the choice it was faced with.

Other solutions

As Mr Straw moved on to the EU summit in Athens, there seemed to be little enthusiasm among British officials for yet another cumbersome European jamboree.

It is clear a sobering new alignment is quietly being put into place, should the old alliances between the US and Europe fracture still further

But it became increasingly obvious that the talks behind the scenes here on Iraq were of critical importance.

No doubt aimed at France, Germany and Russia - which also sent its foreign minister to Athens - Mr Straw began to drop veiled hints about the need for Security Council members also to wake up to how the world had changed in the last few weeks.

"Of course the US and the UK want a vital role for the United Nations," he said.

"But whether that vital role can be delivered depends on the degree to which other nations in the Security Council are constructive. They need to accept there is a new reality in Iraq and it is the responsibility of all those - especially those who can wield a veto - not to play games."

And even more ominously: "If co-operation from the permanent five members of the Security Council is not forthcoming, then we'll have to make other arrangements - and we will find other solutions."

In other words, new UN Security Council resolutions to legitimise the transitional arrangements for a new Iraq may be highly desirable, but are not essential.

France and Russia will not be allowed to wield the threat of their veto again. This time round the US and Britain are already signalling they are prepared to work without the United Nations if necessary.

There is already ground work being done to build a new "coalition of the willing," if necessary to provide an alternative framework for the peace in Iraq.

New allies?

Mr Straw's talks with the princes and sheikhs of the Gulf states were not just for show, but to sound out these allies about economic and security support for the new Iraq - providing police or troops for security, contributing to projects to get Iraq's economy going again.

Similar soundings were being taken in Athens, too, with some among the new 10 members who make up what US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to call "new Europe".

As Mr Straw pointed out in Athens after a meeting with the Romanian foreign minister, many are post-communist countries that have their own good reasons for backing the end of Iraq's tyranny and oppression.

What is becoming clear is that a sobering new alignment is quietly being put into place, should the old alliances between the US and Europe fracture still further.

It is still a hypothetical fall-back position, a point of pressure to encourage UN Security Council members to fall into line. But it is already on the drawing board.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
"To walk away from this would be utterly irresponsible"



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