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TONY Blair has told his Cabinet to brace itself for war on Iraq as early as Wednesday, in the clearest signal yet that hopes of a diplomatic solution have disappeared. Speaking just hours before setting off for today's ‘war summit' with the American President George Bush, a grim-faced Prime Minister warned military action without the backing of United Nations was only days away(NATO)...





Blair: War by Wednesday


TONY Blair has told his Cabinet to brace itself for war on Iraq as early as Wednesday, in the clearest signal yet that hopes of a diplomatic solution have disappeared.

Speaking just hours before setting off for today’s ‘war summit’ with the American President George Bush, a grim-faced Prime Minister warned military action without the backing of United Nations was only days away.

Downing Street last night admitted that the prospects of a diplomatic end to the stand-off with Saddam Hussein were receding rapidly in the face of continuing French opposition to any compromise resolution that could trigger military action.

Yesterday the Prime Minister embarked on a last-minute round of telephone diplomacy in a desperate bid to rescue the proposed second resolution which, if passed, could legitimise a military campaign to remove Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

But he will today join Bush and Spanish prime minister Jose-Maria Aznar in the Azores for a meeting in which they are expected to abandon attempts to win UN approval and thrash out final plans for an invasion of Iraq next week.

While Blair met with his Cabinet, the armed forces minister Adam Ingram, meeting with European defence ministers in Greece, agreed that war was now only "a matter of days" away.

The East Kilbride MP said: "I think the language which has been used over recent days in London would lead us to that conclusion."

Last night senior Ministry of Defence sources confirmed they were ready for the order to send the 30,000-plus British force massed on Iraq’s borders into action as early as Wednesday.

The expectation of an imminent attack was heightened by yesterday’s arrival of hundreds of tonnes of heavy munitions at the front in northern Kuwait.

British soldiers readying themselves for war in the Gulf were advised "now might be a good time" to make compassionate telephone calls home. They were also told to prepare to destroy documents, photographs and other items that might link them to family and friends in the event of capture.

Yesterday, Iraq submitted new documentation to the chief weapons inspector Hans Blix which it claims proves that its VX chemical agents were destroyed 12 years ago. The move was dismissed as "more game playing" by the British government.

Blair’s decision to go to war even if he fails to secure UN backing is expected to lead to the loss of two Cabinet ministers: Clare Short and Robin Cook. He will also have to face a growing rebellion among Labour MPs.

Rebels within his own party are planning to force a House of Commons debate on the crisis on Tuesday, and predict the vote against the government’s policy will dwarf the 121 recorded in a similar motion last month.

Yesterday, in Scotland, the health minister Malcolm Chisholm also broke ranks and voiced his opposition to the war.

Foreign secretary Jack Straw also admitted that the impasse in the UN now made war "more probable".

Privately he conceded that British efforts at the UN to agree a resolution setting disarmament benchmarks for Saddam, with which he would quickly have to comply or face an invasion, have effectively failed. Britain has so far failed to secure the support of the six wavering members of the security council need for a majority.

The pessimistic prediction of imminent war came hours after Bush made a landmark announcement committing his government to kick-start the Middle East peace process by rushing forward a ‘route map’ laying down proposals to create a Palestinian state within two years. The initiative was partly intended to win over support from the undecided nations that could provide the US and UK resolution with a majority on the UN Security Council.

But Washington last night made it clear that hopes of forcing through a resolution were fading, as Bush himself told Americans in a radio address that "there is little reason to hope that Saddam Hussein will disarm".

One senior source in the US state department laid bare the perils of pursuing the diplomatic route any further: "There are only two diplomatic options left: submit a resolution to the UN Security Council that will be defeated, or at the very least vetoed by France; or withdraw the resolution because it faces defeat. Either way, the US goes to war," said the source.

There is still bitter resentment among British ministers at France’s position, in particular the "intransigence" of French president Jacques Chirac. Yesterday Blair made no attempt to conceal his fury in Cabinet after the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin insisted that his country would veto any resolution which authorised military action against Iraq.

Last night a Downing Street spokesman said: "Everyone recognises things aren’t looking good.

"There is nothing that we have heard from the French that indicates that their position has changed. That is hardly the behaviour of a country that believes in a multilateral international regime."

Labour Party chairman John Reid said de Villepin’s remarks were "disappointing".

Addressing the party’s eastern conference in Clacton, after seeing the Prime Minister, Reid said that French intransigence made further diplomacy "very, very difficult" but added: " We will continue to work hard to change minds and get that second resolution."

Blair is expected to allow a vote on war in the Commons on Tuesday, or Wednesday at the latest. Downing Street expects a huge number of Labour rebels, perhaps as many as 160, and at least two Cabinet resignations: Cook, the Leader of the Commons, and Short, the International Development Secretary.

But the Prime Minister still expects to win the Commons vote. He also hopes to be vindicated by the swift fall of Baghdad, the gratitude of the Iraqi people and the discovery of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

Today Blair will fly the 1,500 miles to the Azores amid renewed concerns over his health. Home Secretary David Blunkett spoke of the "the tremendous damage to his health" caused by the crisis.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic insist the emergency summit is designed to salvage what they can of their second resolution, but many believe the time for diplomacy is over and their talks will amount to a council of war.

Stefan Halper, a former White House aide to four American presidents, said: "What they are doing is making every effort to cover what political liabilities they think they may have as a result of this, whether it be the British public or the Labour Party or anyone else ."

Blair spoke to Reid, his deputy, John Prescott and other ministers at No 10 yesterday to ensure he has the full backing of the Cabinet before flying in to the mid-Atlantic archipelago.

But veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell claimed Straw had not laid out the legal justification for going to war with Iraq without a new resolution. The Linlithgow MP said: " How can he claim to be upholding UN authority when Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, members of the Security Council and many others are diametrically opposed to his view?"

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith pledged not to play "political games" and to give his party’s support to Tony Blair as he "does the right thing".

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