PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 1998, 12:00am

Since she became US Secretary of State, a great deal of Madeleine Albright's time and energy has been taken up touring the globe, bolstering support for America's attempt to force Iraq to comply with UN demands to allow inspection teams access to all weapons inspection sites.

Every diplomatic effort has been tried, but each time a compromise is reached, Saddam Hussein finds a new excuse for non-compliance. The US cannot go on uttering threats. There must come a point at which talking ceases, and a different strategy is attempted, whether by military means, or by accepting that the regime cannot be controlled and should therefore be brought back into the international fold.

If reports are correct, and the US and Britain are prepared to act alone, the perils of that decision are self-evident. Given a guarantee that all the suspected weapons sites can be obliterated, without risk to human life, the gamble would be justified. But if that was the likely outcome, there would be support in the Security Council.

The difficulty is that chemical weapons do not need to be manufactured in purpose-built factories. They can be produced in a thousand small units, dotted across the country, from laboratories to breweries, and it is virtually impossible for them all to be destroyed. Even US officials admit this. Supposing that the Arab states can be persuaded to allow their countries to be used as bases for an attack, it is unlikely they would support a campaign which lasted more than a few days. Last November, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to allow their bases to be used for sorties against Iraq, and there is no indication that they will change their stance unless they become convinced that they will be aiding a successful operation.

In the Security Council itself, Russia, China and France are opposed to military action, even as a last resort. The principal aim of a strike against Iraq can only be to frighten Saddam into compliance, or perhaps to destroy his air force and military infrastructure.

There may be little personal support for the Iraqi President in the Middle East, but there is widespread sympathy for the sufferings of the Iraqi people who are bearing the brunt of the sanctions. Saddam has used civilians as a shield before, and he will not hesitate to repeat the tactic.

The challenges of the new world order, which once seemed to promise an end to conflict, make the dangers of the Cold War look almost simple in comparison. Any petty dictator in an impoverished country can now hold the world to ransom if he has guile and ruthlessness. Saddam must be stopped, and his weapons destroyed, but without full UN support for military action, it is difficult to know how.