Oil is key as Bush agrees month delay


TONY Blair and George Bush have privately agreed a joint strategy that will delay any possible war against Iraq for four weeks during which time they will work tirelessly to achieve three key objectives:

Firstly, they seek to p ersuade France, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, not to carry out its threatened veto of a second UN resolution to allow the US to intervene in Iraq.

The French, along with Russia and China, also permanent members of the UN but not expected to vote, have extensive oil rights in Iraq and want those guaranteed before agreeing to any UN resolution.

Secondly, to ensure that all military personnel and hardware is in place for a likely attack at the start of March.

Finally, to u tilise every possible moment to win the hearts and minds of the American and British public and persuade them that war is justified in order to disarm Saddam Hussein.

In what will be a crucial five days for the two leaders, culminating in their meeting at Camp David on Friday, the Prime Minister and the US president agreed during a lengthy telephone conversations last week that the 'United Nations route', however difficult, remained their political preference.

According to sources at the United Nations in New York, the White House has now confirmed to senior UN officials that weapons inspectors in Iraq will be given more time and that tomorrow's report to the Security Council by the chief weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, will not be regarded as a trigger for unilateral action by the US and Britain.

However, the softening of Washington's hardline rhetoric comes at a price. Weapons inspection teams will be given only a matter of weeks, not months, to complete their report.

The US is also understood to be ready to compromise its plans to monopolise the post-war oil industry in Iraq using only US oil firms. The US government's promise to hold Iraqi oilfields 'in trust' for the people of Iraq is now looking like an international, US-led promise to spread the spoils between US, French, Chinese and Russian oil companies.

What remains unclear diplomatically is the position the anti-war German government will take if the French are seen to roll over in a covert oil deal. However new diplomatic noises from Berlin appeared positive, with Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, insisting that his country maintained 'close ties' with Washington. Fischer also said Iraq had to disarm, indicating even Germany would be forced into a compromise position.

Blix's report to the security council tomorrow, in his own words, will state that Iraq's co-operation with weapons inspectors has been 'a mixed bag'. His report will also state that Iraq has not been pro-active in assisting the inspectors. For the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell -- speaking in Davos, Switzerland, today at the gathering of international political and business leaders -- Iraq has not done enough.

And in a hint of what is to come in the coming month, he said the international community could not shrink from its responsibility to disarm Iraq by force just because 'the going is getting tough'.

Just how tough will probably be evident within a matter of weeks. Bush's State of the Union address to the US Congress on Tuesday, followed by discussions inside the security council on Wednesday and the Camp David meeting two days later, will be the foundation of an offensive by the US government to convince a still doubt-ridden US public that war against Saddam is both justified and clear cut.

Powell has previously admitted that the US administration has not done enough to convince the hearts and minds of American and international opinion.

The additional breathing space will also be crucial for Blair. A new opinion poll in today's Sunday Times states that the Prime Minister still has his work cut out: only 26% said he had convinced them that Saddam was sufficiently dangerous to justify military action. Though 72% said they would support a war that had the backing of the UN, only 20% gave Blair the backing for a war in which British troops would join a US-led force.

All diplomatic, political and military considerations now point to war being timetabled for the first week of March. March 3 is likely to be the first date of any sustained bombing campaign, with US meteorologists forecasting ideal weather conditions.