PRIME Minister John Major has mustered all-party support for British forces to be used in an American-led attempt to enforce United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
Ahead of an emergency Cabinet meeting on Aug. 18, Mr. Major received assurances from the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties that they would back agreed military measures to enforce UN sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime. But Labour's foreign-affairs spokesman ruled out a direct attack on Baghdad.
The options discussed at the Cabinet meeting, a government source said, included the enforcement of an air-exclusion zone south of the 32nd parallel to prevent Iraqi aircraft being used to attack Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq.
The source confirmed that Royal Air Force planes, believed to be stationed in Cyprus, had been placed on alert. The destroyer HMS Edinburgh had been ordered to take part in joint exercises with Kuwait in the Gulf. If used, British forces would be employed in support of the US and other allies, the source said.
Mr. Major broke off a holiday in Spain to chair this Cabinet meeting. Originally the top item on the agenda had been preparations for next week's planned international conference on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. But following weekend indications that the United States might be contemplating military action against Baghdad, the prime minister switched emphasis to Iraq.
Malcolm Rifkind, the defense secretary, briefed the Cabinet on available military options, including air strikes on government buildings and military installations - tactics like those used during Operation Desert Storm.
Enforcing an air-exclusion zone implies there could be attacks on Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft if it was confirmed that they were being used to attack the so-called Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Intelligence reports presented to the British Cabinet spoke of a sharp escalation of attacks on Shiite Muslim rebels in that area.
After the meeting, officials stressed that Major had made no firm decisions about action against Iraq. An attack was not imminent, officials stressed.
"We will operate in close consultation with the Americans and our other allies," a Downing Street source said. "Just now we want to keep Saddam Hussein on his toes."
Reports in the Financial Times indicate that Britain might ask for specific UN Security Council authorization for military measures against Iraq.
Afterward, official sources said, it was not certain that existing Security Council resolutions could be used to justify attacks. A special meeting of the Council might be needed to validate military action.
George Robertson, the Labour opposition foreign affairs spokesman, said: "If there is a likelihood of further Iraqi attacks on people in the south we should all be seen to stand together. We should make it absolutely clear that this has nothing to do with air attacks on Baghdad."
He added: "This is not an attack on Iraq itself, it is simply a threat that unless they comply with the UN resolutions then we will make sure that an air exclusion zone gives some protection to people."
Sir David Steel, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrat center party, said the threatened use of force against Iraq had caused Saddam Hussein to back down last April. Sir David said his party would support the creation of the air exclusion zone.
David Harris, a senior member of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said he was certain all his Conservative Party colleagues would support an air-exclusion zone if the government proposed that course.