US split with allies grows

Hawks and doves clash over Iraq

 Julian Borger in Washington

 Friday February 15, 2002

 A senior Pentagon adviser confirmed last night that the US was prepared to topple Saddam Hussein with or without the backing of Washington's allies, despite a chorus of criticism from around the world.

Richard Perle, the chairman of the defence policy board and an influential Washington hawk, made the defiant remarks in an interview with Channel 4 News amid increasingly clear signs that the Pentagon and CIA are preparing to remove Saddam.

Mr Perle said: "Naturally, we hope that our friends who recognise the danger that he presents to us will join with us."

He added: "But I think this president has made it clear that if it comes to a choice between action to protect the American people without allies or [with] allies but no action, we'll go without allies."

Mr Perle is on the extreme hawkish wing in Washington, but since a war cabinet decision was taken in principle to eliminate Saddam's regime in January, other members of the administration have echoed the hawks' unilateralist tone.

The secretary of state, Colin Powell, said US allies would be consulted when a decision was made on how to force a change of regime in Baghdad, but he added "we have to preserve the option to act alone".

However, Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, who criticised US policy in the Guardian on Saturday, returned to the fray yesterday, saying that the US "instinct" for unilateralism was profoundly misguided.

He told the Financial Times the US success in Afghanistan "has perhaps reinforced some dangerous instincts: that the projection of military power is the only basis of security; that the US can rely on no one but itself; and that allies may be useful as an optional extra".

The Canadian foreign minister, Bill Graham, who met Mr Powell in Washington yesterday, added his voice to the expressions of concern from Europe and criticised the bellicose tone he had found within the US administration.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, also warned the US. "We know which nations' representatives and citizens were fighting alongside the Taliban and where their activities were financed from," he said. "Iraq is not on this list."

In Britain, a spokesman for Tony Blair did not "rule out" action against Saddam but the point had not yet been reached where it should be taken.

"In relation to Baghdad, we agree that the regime there is one of the most abhorrent in the world and share concerns about Baghdad's support for terrorism and desire to develop weapons of mass destruction," he continued. "We do not rule out action if the regime oversteps the mark but we are not at that stage yet."

US and diplomatic sources have said that the Pentagon and the CIA had begun preparations for overt and covert action against Saddam in anticipation of an Iraqi refusal to allow weapons inspectors back into the country in May.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002