Saddam defies UN inspectors again

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IRAQ and the US appeared yesterday to be lurching once again towards military confrontation, after Baghdad barred the doors of all its ministries to United Nations arms inspection teams.

President George Bush pledged immediately that the US would 'help guarantee' the right of inspection. 'United Nations resolutions will be honoured in full and he (Saddam Hussein) will comply with United Nations resolutions,' Mr Bush told reporters.

The Iraqi announcement reversed a 12-day-old agreement with UN officials allowing access under certain conditions to the Baghdad Agriculture Ministry. The Bush administration said the decision was 'preposterous' and the US was ready to seek 'very forceful compliance' with UN Gulf ceasefire resolutions.

Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, said: 'We certainly don't comment on military operations. But all options are open to us.'

The Iraqi Minister of Culture, Hamed Youssef Hammadi, told a press conference in Baghdad that his government rejected 'categorically visits to the headquarters of ministries because the aim . . . is to hurt Iraq's sovereignty and independence'.

A new UN inspection team is to arrive in Iraq today to investigate compliance with the Gulf war ceasefire terms, ordering the destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It was not immediately clear whether they intended to visit any ministry buildings.

Earlier, Rolf Ekeus, the UN official in charge of the inspection teams, said the Security Council had been 'somewhat slow' to react when Baghdad excluded his people from the Agriculture Ministry last month. 'There will be very swift reaction if there is any tendency to block us this time.'