‘I profoundly hope that the Iraqi regime will, even at this late stage, seize the chance to disarm peacefully,’ he said. ‘The only other peaceful alternative would be for Saddam Hussein to heed the calls of a number of other Arab leaders, to go into exile and hand over to a new leadership prepared to conform with the Security Council’s demands. But if it refuses to co-operate then the Security Council must face up to its responsibilities.’

Straw welcomed the report by International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) director general Mohamed el-Baradei to the UN Security Council on 7 March that three months of intrusive inspections had produced ‘no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.’ He said, however, that the report by head of United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) chairman Hans Blix to the security council on the same day represented movement in some limited areas and that the partial destruction Al Somoud missiles was ‘only the tip of the iceberg of Iraq’s illegal programmes’.

Straw said the UNMOVIC document Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes which was made publicly available on 7 March was a ‘chilling catalogue of evasion and deceit, of feigning cooperation while in reality pursuing concealment’.

‘Frankly, as anyone can see from reading the UNMOVIC document, to continue inspections with no firm end date will not achieve the disarmament required by the Security Council,’ Straw said. ‘ -The reality is that Saddam responds only to pressure. And the clear conclusion to draw from this is that we must further increase the pressure on him. We must put him to the test.’

Straw said the amendment to a previously circulated draft security council resolution put before the council by the UK on 7 March was ’eminently reasonable -We are not expecting Saddam to have disarmed in a week or so; but to demonstrate by that time the full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation demanded of him by successive UN resolutions since 1991.’

Straw said that in the cirumstances in which military action is necessary, he had proposed to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on 6 March that the UN should take the lead role in co-ordinating international efforts to rebuild Iraq and that this should be underpinned by a clear UN mandate.

Straw said he hoped that the nomination of Abu Mazen as Prime Minister of the PA would be approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council. ‘Abu Mazen has a fine track record in peace negotiations with Israel,’ he said. ‘We very much hope that this appointment, and other reform measures being taken by the Palestinian Authority, will help to restore a meaningful peace process, as set out in the Road Map devised by the Quartet.’ Straw said he would talk to the new Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on 11 March.