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Thursday, February 12, 1998 Published at 17:35 GMT


Blair calls Iraq offer 'hopeless'
image: [ Tony Blair is standing firm with President Clinton in rejecting Iraq's latest proposal ]
Tony Blair is standing firm with President Clinton in rejecting Iraq's latest proposal

Iraq's offer to open eight presidential sites to UN weapons inspectors has been dismissed by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "absolutely hopeless".

His spokesman said Mr Blair told the Cabinet in a 40-minute discussion that everyone was "working flat out" for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

But if force had to be used, he was confident the allies had the technology and equipment to avoid civilian deaths and environmental catastrophe.

Mr Blair urged ministers always to remind people why it was so important to stop Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction.

The Prime Minister stressed that Iraq's offer of a one-off visit to suspected weapons sites was unacceptable and "absolutely hopeless".

Free and unrestricted access to all sites had to be provided, Mr Blair said.

In the past inspectors have had to make three or four visits to a single location before weapons were found. One weapons site was described as a "military compound the size of Paris".

[ image: Saddam Hussein: no unrestricted access to sites]
Saddam Hussein: no unrestricted access to sites
The spokesman said Mr Blair told his colleagues that there was far greater support for Britain's position than seemed apparent.

Downing Street says a number of countries have come out openly behind Britain, while others were "making noises privately". Officials say there was no discussion on the timing of any action.

Both the Houses of Parliament will debate Iraq on February 17th, with Foreign Secretary Robin Cook opening the Commons debate.

Ministers back Blair hard line

"The ball is in Saddam Hussein's court," Derek Fatchett, who is Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said in Cairo. "He can pick up the phone and say he will comply."

Earlier, the Defence Secretary George Robertson said the strategy of diplomacy backed up by the threat of force against Iraq was working.

Mr Robertson told BBC Breakfast News he hoped Iraq would come up with an acceptable solution. "Saddam Hussein recognises that the penalty for not making movement is going to be an attack that will take place if diplomacy fails.

"We've already seen him moving. He has conceded the principle of inspection. He is only doing that because we have been robust in what we have said.

"We've learnt from history that you cannot appease dictators. He is a dictator. He's got territorial ambitions for the rest of that region and he's also got weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Cardinal Hume has "strong doubts" over strike

Cardinal Basil Hume, who heads the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, has written to the Prime Minister to oppose Gulf strikes. He expressed "strong personal doubts" about the wisdom of a military strike against Iraq, and feared "disproportionate harm."

"The recent history of the Middle East teaches us that armed conflicts rarely, if ever, solve anything," he added.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister warned that the rejection of his country's offer was a "bluff" that could backfire on America.

"They will suffer a major loss if they turn this bluff into a real refusal," Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said after meeting the Arab League Secretary-General in Cairo.

"The door is still open to diplomatic work," he added.

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