The top-level discussions came after a week of conflicting signals from US politicians over their stance on the issue, and increasing levels of international opposition. A letter from Baghdad inviting UN weapons inspectors to return is to be discussed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The Crawford meeting was attended by Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and joint chief of staff chairman Richard Myers. Secretary of State Colin Powell was not present. ‘Regime change is in the interests of the world,’ said Bush. ‘How we achieve that is a matter of consultation and deliberation.’

Describing media speculation over US intentions as frenzied, Bush said he would approach the issue with patience and in consultation with friends and allies. However, while inspecting troops after the meeting, Rumsfeld indicated the prominent position of Iraq in the administration’s thinking. ‘The president has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq,’ he said. ‘He’s thinking about it.’

Bush faces considerable opposition to a military solution abroad, and heated disagreement at home. Canada added its voice to the growing chorus of concern about military action, with Defence Minister John McCallum suggesting the government would be ‘unlikely’ to join an attack on the basis of existing information.

Attempting to forestall a dispute with Russia, Rumsfeld proffered a warning to Moscow that its interests lay with Washington, rather than Baghdad. ‘To the extent that Russia decides that it wants to parade relationships with countries like Iraq and Libya., it sends out a signal across the globe that that is what Russia thinks is a good thing to do, to deal with terrorist states,’ he said, adding that this would discourage investment in Russia.

In the US, the debate also heated up. ‘There is a very powerful moral case for regime change,’ Rice told the BBC on 15 August. ‘We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing.’ However, Brent Scrowcroft, national security adviser during the 1990-91 Gulf war, warned that ‘an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardise, if not destroy the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.’

In another attempt to head off a potential attack, Baghdad had earlier invited UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq for discussions over continued inspections. However, while the invitation is to be discussed by Annan and Security Council members, it has been called into question by the US. ‘We think it is a part of continuing dilatory tactics by Iraq to substitute talks for real inspections and disarmament,’ said John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the UN.