Saddam raises the stakes as crisis deepens

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THE CRISIS between Iraq and the United Nations deepened dramatically last night when President Saddam Hussein said he would "completely suspend co-operation" with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A showdown on the ground may occur today after the chief UN arms inspector, Richard Butler, declared last night he would be sending out his inspectors to sites across Iraq in defiance of Saddam Hussein's order.

Suggesting yesterday that the inspectors had maintained their schedule, even as the latest diplomatic crisis was erupting, Mr Butler told reporters at UN headquarters: "I will instruct them to continue their work."

Emerging from an hour of talks with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, Mr Butler, head of the UN Special Commission (Unscom) on Iraqi non-conventional weapons, admitted developments during the day were "very worrying". He said: "This is a syndrome-type thing with Iraq that is going around over and over again. Let's hope we can break the syndrome and find a resolution." He added, however, that relaxing the regime of inspectors was out of the question.

Mr Butler said he had received two letters from the Baghdad government yesterday, one 50 pages long and another requesting what he called "a restructuring" of Unscom and the way it does its work. He will give a full report to the Security Council this morning.

In Baghdad, President Saddam said he wanted a new body of weapons inspectors, based in Geneva or Vienna, to be created under the supervision of a monitoring group representing the five permanent members of the Security Council. A government statement said monitoring activities will be allowed on condition that UN "personnel carry out the monitoring strictly respecting Iraq's sovereignty, security and its people's dignity". This means UN experts can no longer search suspected weapons sites or gain access to documents, but monitoring cameras installed in suspected weapons sites will remain in place.

A White House spokesman called President Saddam's latest moves "a game of cat-and-mouse" and said any military response would be premature. Asked whether the US would respond with troop movements in the Gulf region, as it did when Iraq expelled UN inspectors last year, the spokesman said: "Let's wait and see what we hear". Mr Butler will address the Security Council tomorrow.

Mr Butler said he was mystified by Baghdad's action when resolution of several issues was near. The inspectors were apparently close, in the areas of missiles and chemical weapons, to being able to declare that Iraq had complied with UN resolutions. "We were getting there. If this was a five-lap race, we were halfway into the fifth lap."

The ruling Baath party was organising demonstrations in Baghdad last night in opposition to Mr Butler and in favour of the government decision.

There is no doubt there is deep resentment at the way the UN examines the minutiae of Iraqi weapons procurement, but ignores the consequences of prolonging sanctions on Iraqis, a third of whose children are malnourished, according to Unicef. President Saddam has decided that, after eight years, he is not going to allow the inspection process to continue without receiving assurances about the end of sanctions.