Iraq stalls over Bush ultimatum: Saddam risks further air strikes despite partial climbdown at eleventh hour over UN inspectors

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IN ANOTHER dramatic face-off with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the United States and its allies were last night struggling to weigh up a partial climbdown by Baghdad after it had been given just hours to guarantee safe passage into the country for United Nations inspectors or face renewed military action.

In a surprise statement on the White House lawn, President George Bush said Baghdad had been given until 9pm GMT last night to abide by UN demands for the way to be cleared for the UN flights. It was clear from the warning that renewed allied action could follow swiftly if the new deadline was ignored.

But soon after the President's statement it emerged that basic permission for the UN flights had been granted by Baghdad. In a significant caveat, however, Iraq warned it could not guarantee the safety of the flights. For that reason it was unclear whether the offer satisfied the latest demand.

A spokesman for the UN special commission responsible for the inspectors' flights said the Iraqi response was viewed as a 'refusal on the part of Iraq' to accept its requests for unimpeded flight clearance. But in an indication that the allies may hold off from immediate retaliation, he said a further request would be made for flight clearance into Iraq for today.

In Washington, meanwhile, the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said that the Bush administration had still not determined whether the Iraqi response was sufficient. 'We are now discussing that with the UN and trying to make a determination whether that was adequate or not,' he said.

Western sources added that the ultimatum, delivered to Iraq's ambassador to the UN by the US, Britain, France and Russia, also demanded that Iraq vacate former police emplacements that are now just inside the re-drawn Iraq-Kuwait border in the demilitarised zone. 'They may have given flight access, but if they haven't vacated the police posts then they are still in trouble and we cannot relax,' one diplomat underlined.

Since the first allied strike against anti-aircraft missile installations in the southern no-fly zone on Wednesday, the US has made clear that any further non-compliance with UN demands would be met with renewed strikes without any additional warnings.

Making no secret of the possibility of renewed action, Mr Bush said: 'I think sufficient warnings have been granted and they know what they must do. This is not just the United States. This is the United Nations. It's a strong coalition whose determination has not diminished in any single way.'

Spelling out the new challenge to Baghdad, he said: 'The United Nations has informed Saddam Hussein that if flight clearance is not granted by 4pm Eastern Standard Time (9pm GMT) today (Friday), Iraq will be in non-compliance'. Even as he spoke, personnel on the US carrier Kitty Hawk, stationed in the Gulf, were loading laser-guided weapons on to bombers.

Mr Bush also signalled that further military action was in any case being contemplated because of the only partial success of Wednesday's strike, when, by the Pentagon's own admission, just one out of four anti-aircraft emplacements in southern Iraq was destroyed. 'We continue to assess the residual aspects of that mission,' the President said.

As the crisis flared again, a first contingent of 1,100 US troops from Fort Hood, Texas, arrived in Kuwait, ordered there by President Bush after Wednesday's air raids. Baghdad claimed, meanwhile, that an anti-aircraft battery near the southern city of Basra had 'confronted an enemy target' and forced it to flee. This was not confirmed in Washington.

An order from President Saddam at the end of last week banning the UN flights was one of several actions condemned by the allies as violations of UN resolutions setting the terms of the Gulf war ceasefire. The other transgressions were placing anti-aircraft missiles in no-fly zones in the south and north of the country and launching cross-border incursions into Kuwait.

The confusion over whether Iraq had backed down sufficiently to avoid further reprisals reflected the now familiar strategy employed by Baghdad of offering partial acceptance of Western demands while stopping short of absolute compliance. Insisting that it could not be responsible for the safety of the flights, Baghdad pointed specifically to the continuing existence of the no-fly zone patrolled by US jets.

The UN has been waiting several days to fly a new batch of 70 inspectors into Iraq, whose main task is to oversee the destruction of Iraq's long-range weapons capability as demanded in the UN ceasefire resolutions. The basic clearance for the flights offered by Baghdad yesterday was valid from yesterday until next Monday.

In a statement from Little Rock, a spokesman for President- elect Bill Clinton again voiced strong support for Mr Bush in the latest confrontation. 'We support the Bush adminstration policy. Iraq is going to have to comply fully with the UN resolutions including the ability of inspectors to fly into Iraq on UN planes,' an official said.

The US Air Force Secretary, Donald Rice, confirmed that all allied forces remained on full alert for possible renewed action. 'Air Force assets are ready every day to carry out whatever the commander-in-chief assigns them,' he said.

Kurdish fears. . . . .11