US officials have indicated that Washington plans in effect to issue an ultimatum to the Iraqi leader, whereby Baghdad will be given the opportunity to allow weapons inspectors back, but if he fails to do so or obstructs the inspectors’ work, Iraq will be subjected to military attack. This approach marks a shift in US policy, as it implies that Washington is now concerned to gain international acceptance for its actions, whereas previously it had been suggested that the US was ready to act alone.

By opening the issue up for consultation, Bush has also allowed for the possibility of alternative approaches to be considered. One idea being discussed is to combine the return of UN weapons inspectors with the mobilisation of a military force designed to ensure that the inspections are effective.

Bush gathered together 18 congressional leaders on 4 September in what was billed as the formal launch of the much-flagged global campaign against the Baghdad regime. He said he would seek the support of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council for resolute action to deal with the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This process was to start with a planned meeting at Camp David on 8 September with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bush said he would also speak with leaders of China, France and Russia.

He said he expects to ask for a congressional resolution supporting the yet-to-be-defined action before the October recess ahead of the 5 November mid-term elections.

Administration hardliners vice-president Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have in recent weeks sought to present the issue in terms of the need to take military action against Iraq to pre-empt a possible Iraqi attack on the US. Cheney and Rumsfeld have made clear that they do not see the return of weapons inspectors as an adequate means to avert this threat, and that the removal of the Iraq regime is the only course of action available. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has indicated that he still considers the weapons inspectors option worth pursuing.

In a briefing to reporters on 4 September, Powell acknowledged that the administration has yet to come up with a unified position. ‘I think there are lots of differences,’ he said. ‘Some are real, some are perceived, some are overhyped.’

The inspectors-plus-military-enforcement option has been presented by an international group of policy experts and former officials assembled by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a report, scheduled to be issued in full on 6 September, the group states that the administration should focus on the threat of Iraq’s developing weapons of mass destruction, rather than on Saddam Hussein’s removal. It suggests that the UN should create a 50,000-strong coercive inspections force to ensure that weapons inspections are carried out effectively.

Baghdad is now working to capitalise on the growing international opposition to the prospect of a US-led war on Iraq. Deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz on September met UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Johannesburg, and reiterated that Iraq was willing to readmit UN inspectors as long as assurances were received that sanctions would be lifted in a reasonable space of time. He also met former South African president Nelson Mandela, who emphasised that any inspection team should be constituted on balance lines, and should not be dominated by Western powers.

Arab League foreign affairs ministers met in Cairo on 4 September and reaffirmed their opposition to any military action being taken against Iraq.

The intensification of the diplomacy on the Iraq question came amid reports of fresh US moves to mobilise heavy military equipment in the Middle East in readiness for an attack. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has instructed military chiefs and emergency services to prepare by 1 November for the eventuality of a US attack on Iraq resulting in Iraqi actions against Israel.