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1998: Iraqi climbdown averts air strikes

Britain and America have pulled back from the brink of war with Iraq after an offer to let UN weapons inspectors back into the country.

American and British bombers were on their way to Baghdad when they were called off after Iraq's letter was delivered to the United Nations Security Council on Saturday.

But US President Bill Clinton warned military strikes would take place if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein broke his word.

"Now Iraq must live up to its obligations," Mr Clinton said.

After a night of intense diplomatic activity the Security Council adjourned until later on Sunday after failing to decide its response.

France, Russia and China welcomed the Iraqi move but the United States and Britain said their forces remain on alert for possible attacks on Iraq.

"There will be no let up on the pressure"

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook

The crisis was triggered by complaints by United Nations weapons inspectors - in Iraq to search for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction being built by the Iraqis- that their work was being hindered.

The UN ordered them out of Iraq in anticipation of military action against Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the government would now assess whether the offer was genuine but in the meantime forces in the Gulf would remain.

"There will be no let up on the pressure to make sure he stays with this agreement," he said.

The US is continuing to build up military forces in the Gulf, with a naval battle group headed by the aircraft carrier Enterprise ordered to speed up its arrival in the area.

More than 100 fighter planes - including 18 B-1 and B-52 bombers and 12 F-117A radar-evading stealth planes - have been sent to the region.

In Context
UN weapons inspectors returned a few days after Iraq's offer.

But they were withdrawn in mid-December after the chief inspector said the Iraqis were still not cooperating.

On 16 December three days of air strikes by US forces began during which hundreds of cruise missiles were dropped on Iraq.

But in spite of the bombings and economic sanctions that followed Iraq did not re-admit weapons inspectors until September 2002 when President Saddam Hussein again offered to let inspectors return and they resumed work two months later.

In March 2003 George Bush's son, George W, launched an attack on Iraq in spite of worldwide opposition to war. Backed by British and Australian forces, they toppled Saddam Hussein but never found any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was occupied by US and British forces until 28 June 2004 when power was officially handed over.

Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 after several months in hiding. An Iraqi court tried him, sentenced him to death and had him executed on 30 December 2006.

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