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EDITIONS
Friday, 31 January, 2003, 23:59 GMT
An unpredictable diplomatic game
Tony Blair and George Bush
There was a clear difference in tone between leaders

George Bush and Tony Blair left no room for misunderstanding.

Saddam Hussein was already in breach of his United Nations obligations and war, in all likelihood, was coming within ''weeks rather than months''.

The very brevity of the two leaders' statement lent simplicity and force to that very simple message.

True, there was a clear difference in tone between president and prime minister.

Mr Blair spoke of the test now confronting the international community; code, surely, for the fresh UN resolution the prime minister badly needs to placate his critics at home and add international legitimacy to the military action to which both leaders seem committed.

By contrast, President Bush emphasised his view that time was running out; that he would resist any attempt to drag out the diplomatic process.

On the face of it, he was as willing to wage war without a second resolution as with one.

Yet Mr Bush too wants a new UN mandate. The American public is demanding one, according to the polls.

And the White House wants to shake off the perception that Mr Bush is prepared to contemplate a unilateral, gung-ho military adventure.

Good cop, bad cop

So the two leaders appeared to be conducting a classic ''soft cop - tough cop'' routine.

Britain will work behind the scenes to secure UN agreement that Saddam Hussein is indeed in ''material breach'' of UN resolution 14/41.

The United States will continue to send the message that war will come in any event, a message designed to focus UN minds as well as intimidate the Iraqi leader.

Next week, US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has the awkward task of presenting the case against Saddam Hussein to the UN; awkward because President Bush has created the expectation that the world can expect to hear something new.

Key date

Mr Powell may rely, instead, on a restatement of forceful but familiar circumstantial evidence.

On 14 February, the Chief UN Weapons Inspector, Hans Blix, will report again on his work in Iraq.

That will be decisive.

Another report as damning as the last may be all President Bush needs, though Tony Blair may feel that, when it comes to building the case for war and facing down such sceptics as France and Germany, he can't have too much of a good thing.

In the meantime, the unpredictable diplomatic game goes on. A new war in Iraq now seems to be the only certainty.


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