Iraq is making an increasingly desperate round of diplomatic moves aimed at staving off an American invasion, focusing its efforts on Britain which it believes holds the key to preventing war.
The Guardian has learned that Baghdad is pinning its hopes on persuading the British government to withhold support from any US military action. The calculation among senior figures in the Iraqi regime is that President George Bush is prepared to risk international criticism in a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein - but only if he has Tony Blair at his side.
Iraq's attempt to drive a wedge between Britain and the United States is being spearheaded by its foreign minister, Naji Sabri. According to Mudhafar Amin, the Iraqi government's representative in London, Mr Sabri is ready to visit the UK "to talk to any British official".
Mr Sabri has been conducting a whirlwind diplomatic tour alongside other senior Iraqis. Yesterday he held talks in Amman with King Abdullah of Jordan, who in turn has recently had private meetings with Mr Blair and Mr Bush.
King Abdullah's account of his conversation with Mr Blair gave credence to suspicions of a transatlantic split when he suggested the British prime minister had concerns about America's strategy.
Mr Amin stressed that the Iraqi regime regarded the UK as the only country with the power to stave off an American offensive. "I have had phone calls from religious people - churches - in Britain asking how to break the impasse. I told them: 'Ask the British government what they want from Iraq and we will do it'."
He said the Iraqi foreign minister would come to London if invited. "The British government knows that. We are ready to open a dialogue."
But a Foreign Office spokesman said he was not aware of any proposal for Mr Sabri to visit Britain.
The Iraqi move came as an inter-denominational group of senior British clergy handed in a letter to 10 Downing Street condemning an attack on Iraq as "immoral and illegal", and arguing that the dangers posed by dictators and terrorists could only be eradicated "by tackling the root causes of the disputes themselves".
A Guardian survey yesterday of leading politicians, diplomats, military chiefs and scientists showed the depth of scepticism across British society about any involvement in an Iraq attack. A former ambassador to Baghdad, Sir John Moberly, said: "A lot of the former diplomats are very uneasy about the way we are going."
Richard Dawkins, an Oxford science don, suggested Mr Bush was just as much of a danger to world peace as Saddam Hussein, adding: "It would be a tragedy if Tony Blair were to be brought down through playing poodle to this unelected and deeply stupid little oil-spiv."
However, Iraq's mission to woo the British government is unlikely to bear fruit. Conciliatory noises from Baghdad have so far made little impact in the west. Last week Iraq was sharply rebuffed by Britain and the United States when it sent a letter to the UN, inviting the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, to Baghdad for technical talks about resuming inspections.
Yesterday, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, was seeking to clarify whether the Iraqi letter meant that Saddam Hussein was willing to accept the return of weapons inspectors on terms laid down by the security council.
Although many believe that Britain will eventually support US military action in Iraq, public opposition - such as an opinion poll showing that 52% are hostile to British involvement - is seen in Baghdad as an encouraging sign. Concerns have also been raised in Britain about the legality of a war on Iraq without a new security council mandate.
Iraq sees these transatlantic differences as ripe for exploitation. "If Britain does not offer diplomatic and military cover, the Bush administration will be very hesitant to do anything - this is the conclusion that we have reached," Mr Amin said yesterday.
"The United States, despite the rhetoric, finds opposition all over the world," he continued. "The only cover they have to say they have allies standing up with them is Britain."
But British observers warned that Iraq's faith in Britain was misplaced.
Toby Dodge of the Royal Institute of International Affairs agreed that it would be more difficult for the US to act without British support, but said: "I can't imagine a scenario where Blair would split with Bush."
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, suggested Iraq had failed to realise that the ballpark had changed. "With this US administration one gets the impression they're not really in a mood to listen to British dissent," he said.
A Briton who once took part in a secret mediation mission to Baghdad also thought the Iraqi efforts to woo the UK had come too late. "They've missed the boat," he said, requesting anonymity.
Since taking over as Iraq's foreign minister, Mr Sabri has worked hard to repair his country's relations.
Earlier this year, he made a groundbreaking visit to neighbouring Iran. He has also patched up ties with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and cultivated relations with Russia, which Iraq regards as a sympathetic voice in the security council.
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