`My sacred duty': Annan flies into Baghdad in final bid to head off war

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KOFI ANNAN flew into Baghdad yesterday in a last-ditch effort to head off a war with Iraq. The UN Secretary-General said he had a "sacred duty" to try to defuse Iraq's stand-off with the United Nations.

His task is far from simple: he must persuade Iraq to give UN weapons inspectors enough freedom to satisfy the US and the UN, something the UN has failed to do so far. The US and Britain will be on their guard for any effort to prolong the diplomatic proceedings merely in order to head off air strikes.

Mr Annan was met at Baghdad's Saddam International Airport by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. "I hope I will leave Baghdad with a package that will be acceptable to all ... I'm reasonably optimistic that we will find a peaceful solution." Annan told reporters. Aziz added: "Iraq wants a balanced and fair solution ... that preserves the sovereignty, dignity and national security of Iraq as well as the implementation of U.N. resolutions."

Mr Annan will begin talks with Mr Aziz this morning; an appointment with Saddam Hussein will be arranged if this goes well. Mr Annan has said he expects to spend no more than two days in Baghdad before returning to New York.

President Bill Clinton put the onus for an end to the dispute firmly on Saddam yesterday in a televised message to Arab nations. He said Washington had "no quarrel with the Iraqi people, who are heirs to a proud civilisation and who have suffered for so many years under Saddam's rule." He added: "If force proves necessary to resolve this crisis, we will do everything we can to prevent innocent people from getting hurt. But make no mistake about it, Saddam must bear full responsibility for every casualty that results."

As Mr Annan flew in, the United Nations approved a new plan that would allow Iraq to double the amount of oil it can sell on world markets to buy food and medicine. The Security Council agreed to increase from $2.1bn to $5.2bn the amount of oil Iraq can sell every six months, though Iraq says it cannot produce this amount.

The timing of the vote was clearly meant as a boost to the Secretary- General's prospects when he meets Saddam Hussein. "This is an excellent outcome today," Sir John Weston, Britain's UN representative said. "It's a very good decision to be announcing at [this] point."

But the background to the visit is not encouraging. The US and Britain have assembled a massive fleet in the Gulf, and anger at their presence is growing. Protests erupted yesterday in Amman in Jordan, where at least one protester was killed and Turkish police clashed with hundreds of Islamists demonstrating after Friday prayers in central istanbul.