The first cracks have appeared in the united front presented by the British cabinet, which has staunchly supported the tough-talking US administration over the last year. UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon launched an unprecedented attack on his ministerial colleague Jack Straw in early January after the foreign secretary gave optimistic 60:40 odds against military conflict. Hoon is directly responsible for keeping up British military pressure on Baghdad, announcing on 7 January that the UK plans to dispatch a further 3,000 Royal Marine commandos to the Gulf. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should be left in ‘no doubt’ that he faced a ‘clear and credible’ threat of force, he said – a threat that appeared to be diluted by Straw’s comments.

Straw has also insisted that no time limit can be placed on the work being done by the UN weapons inspectors, who are due to present their first report to the Security Council on 27 January. Hawkish commentators have widely touted this assessment of Iraq’s weapons declaration as the most promising trigger for US military action.

The head of the US’ Central Command, General Tommy Franks, arrived in Washington on 9 January to brief President Bush on the military preparations. The first long-range B-1 bombers have left their base in South Dakota and 1,000 of Franks’ own battle planning staff have been deployed to the region.

The question asked by some Western commentators is whether the US intends to make good its threat of military action, or whether the show of force is intended to precipitate regime change in Iraq without a war. American and British aircraft continue to make propaganda runs over Iraq, dropping leaflets urging military forces to rise up against the regime in Baghdad. The military pressure also lends muscle to the UN weapons inspections regime (see Cover Story, pages 4-5).

There is little doubt as to the severity of the threat. In an inadvertent leak, the UN has added its own voice to the sum of fears. A confidential report on contingency planning for an Iraqi conflict, published on the website of a Cambridge University anti-war group, predicts that up to 500,000 people could suffer injuries in the first phase of an attack and that up to 10 million Iraqis would require humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of military action.