#2 - JRL 7019
Russia begins peace mission to Baghdad
By Nadim Ladki
BAGHDAD, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Russia flexed its diplomatic muscle on Thursday, starting a peace mission in Baghdad to avert a U.S.-led war against Iraq after U.N. experts hunted for banned weapons deep inside President Saddam Hussein's main palace.
"We have to seize any chance to achieve and find a diplomatic and peaceful solution," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, whose country has kept closer ties than many with Iraq and is one of the U.N. Security Council's five veto-wielding members. He landed in Baghdad on Wednesday.
Russia opposes military action against Iraq without a new U.N. mandate, but the United States and Britain have reserved the right to wage their own war if the United Nations fails to force Baghdad to surrender any weapons of mass destruction.
It was unclear whether Saddam was at his palace office when inspectors drove into the compound. The U.N. team complained of having to wait for keys to safes during their visit.
Moscow made its peace bid a day after U.S. President George W. Bush warned Saddam that his patience was running out, and Canada joined anxious states in Europe and the Middle East in demanding that U.N. approval be a condition for any war.
As financial markets and many governments around the world remained jittery, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday Washington had not reached the point of no return towards war despite pouring warplanes, ships and tens of thousands of troops into the oil-rich Gulf region.
But the White House kept up pressure on Iraq by announcing that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would meet at Camp David near Washington on January 31, four days after arms inspectors deliver a key report to the U.N. on Iraqi compliance.
In Brussels, NATO officials said the United States formally asked its NATO allies for indirect military assistance in case of war, including the deployment of missiles to protect NATO member Turkey, which has a long border with Iraq.
PROBLEM FOR BUSH AND BLAIR
Russia's mission and growing anxiety in many capitals across the world over going to war against Iraq without hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction posed a problem for Bush and Blair on building broad support for their tough line on Iraq.
U.N. inspectors have not announced clear evidence but U.S. officials have signalled that any sign of Baghdad failing to cooperate could be enough for Washington to pull the trigger.
U.S. Republican Congressman Douglas Bereuter, president of NATO's parliamentary assembly and a member of Congress's intelligence select committee, did not rule out seeking U.N. backing for any war.
"(The U.S.) would very much find it advantageous to have a supportive resolution, perhaps even a second one, from the U.N. in terms of a broader coalition and greater support of the people in countries of the international community," he said.
Moscow described Saltanov's trip as part of "constant contacts" to ensure implementation of U.N. resolutions.
The Russian mission recalled frantic Soviet diplomatic efforts in 1990 and 1991 to avoid a war against Iraq by the United States, then led by Bush's father. Those attempts failed to deter Washington from ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Saltanov flew into Baghdad just days before the U.N.'s top two arms inspectors travel to Baghdad to demand answers and more cooperation from Iraq to establish whether it has any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
TOUGH TALKING THIS WEEKEND
Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, preparing for their report due on January 27, have made clear they are ready get tough.
Blair, riding out warnings that military action could tear his centre-left Labour Party apart, readied more troops for war and insisted on the right to attack without clear U.N. backing.
On Thursday, 3,000 marines aboard the helicopter carrier Ocean set sail for the Gulf as part of Britain's biggest seaborne invasion task force in 20 years.
Saddam, who insists Iraq has rid itself of all banned weapons, appeared again on Iraqi television defiantly brushing aside U.S. and British threats of war: "We don't want to fight by choice, but when it is imposed upon us we'll fight."