Prime Minister Tony Blair was today flying to the US for crucial talks with President George W Bush over how to halt Saddam Hussein’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Blair, who earlier this week pledged wholehearted backing for the US in tackling the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator, was travelling to President Bush’s Camp David retreat near Washington to talk strategy.
During the course of yesterday, both men were cautioned by other key world leaders about the potentially dangerous implications of any military campaign against Baghdad.
A flurry of telephone calls from Downing Street and the White House followed the bombing by up to 100 British and US jets of a military facility south-west of Baghdad after Iraqi forces attacked one of their patrols in the no-fly zone.
Coalition aircraft used precision-guided weapons to hit an air defence command and control facility at a military airfield 240 miles west and slightly south of the Iraqi capital.
The telephone conversations - President Bush spoke to the leaders of France, Russia and China, and Mr Blair also spoke to President Jacques Chirac and President Vladimir Putin - were intended to bolster international support for action to stop Saddam’s weapons development efforts.
The support of China, Russia and France for military action is seen as crucial, because along with the US and Britain they make up the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Each could use their clout in the UN to veto resolutions aimed at removing Saddam.
But the Russian President told Mr Blair that he has serious reservations about using force to topple Saddam.
President Putin said there was “real potential” for a political solution to the crisis around Baghdad’s alleged weapons programmes, Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov reported.
The Russian leader, who will play host to Mr Blair during a trip to Russia next month, also expressed doubts that the use of force would correspond to international law.
And he warned it could have negative consequences for the entire Middle East as well as the preservation of the international anti-terrorist coalition.
Following President Bush’s conversation with President Chirac, the French leader’s spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said that her boss repeated his long-standing position on the issue - that any military action against Baghdad be decided by the UN Security Council.
President Bush also called President Jiang Zemin of China, who has also made plain that any military action against Iraq should be decided by the UN.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw kept up the verbal pressure on the Iraqi regime, warning that patience with Saddam was running out and that military action had to remain an option.
In a speech at Birmingham University, Mr Straw said: “Until Saddam co-operates fully with UN weapons inspectors, we have no guarantees that a dictator who has previously shown no restraint in using weapons of mass destruction will not use them again.
“In these circumstances it would be wildly irresponsible to argue that patience with Iraq should be unlimited, or that military action should not be an option.”