Speaking at the Committee on International Relations, Powell said that US President Bush is making ‘the most serious assessment of options that one might imagine, and he’s leaving no stone unturned as to what he might do’. In his first State of the Union address on 29 January, Bush accused Iraq of being part of ‘an axis of evil’ and seeking weapons of mass destruction to threaten the US and its allies.

The president’s claims were supported by CIA director George Tenet, who told the Senate intelligence hearing on 6 February that Saddam Hussein remains a threat. ‘Today, he maintains his vice [-like] grip on the levers of power through a pervasive intelligence and security apparatus and.remains capable of defeating more poorly armed internal opposition groups and threatening Iraq’s neighbours,’ Tenet said. US vice-president Dick Cheney will be visiting four of Iraq’s neighbours as part of a planned trip to the Middle East in mid March. Whilst there, he is expected to discuss ‘matters of mutual interest’ and the US’ ongoing war on terrorism.

Support is mounting in Washington for the US to take decisive action against Saddam Hussein, who expelled the UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998. ‘We still believe strongly in regime change in Iraq and we look forward to the day when a democratic, representative government at peace with its neighbours leads Iraq to rejoin the family of nations,’ Powell said.

Iraqi efforts to pre-empt a possible US attack are gathering pace with an offer to meet UN secretary-general Kofi Annan for discussions ‘without any preconditions’. However, the proposal was given short shrift by US officials. ‘There’s not much to discuss,’ said Powell.

The Iraqi proposal to resume talks was passed to Annan on 4 February by the head of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, who visited Baghdad at the end of January. In response, Annan said he was prepared to meet an Iraqi delegation to discuss Baghdad’s relations with the UN in general, and that the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq would be a key area of discussion.