Saddam refuses to back down as the war planes hit again

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The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN was defiant towards America and Britain yesterday as air raids continued into a third night. The raids have been by far the most extensive since the Gulf War, involving hundreds of cruise missiles targeted on dozens of sites.

The Iraqi dictator said that under no circumstances would he back down, despite the attacks on the most critical structures of his regime. "By God, we will not compromise," he said in a taped Iraqi television address. "A curse on the agents of Satan ... We will fear nothing but God and we will not kneel except to the face of God."

It was the first time President Saddam had spoken to Iraqis since the bombing started three days ago.

Against a background of wailing air-raid sirens Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, said last night that Britain was a rat following behind the American elephant.

Mr Aziz hinted that United Nations weapons inspectors would not be allowed to return. He said Richard Butler, the head of Unscom, would never return to Iraq, and accused him of collusion with Washington. "There was co-ordination by the US government and Butler about the content of the report and the timing of the report," said Mr Aziz at a Baghdad news conference. "This is not a military conflict. This is a criminal aggression by the US and Britain."

Baghdad itself was calm but apprehensive yesterday. It was a Friday, a holiday, but the streets were empty away from the central markets. The mood of people is resigned, almost detached, believing that there is nothing they can do to affect the course of events. "They will hit us again and again and again, said one Iraqi, spreading his hands in despair."

Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) yesterday visited two Baghdad hospitals and saw 40 people wounded by the raids. The ICRC could not confirm any figures for the number of civilians killed or wounded in the raids. Iraq says that 25 people have died so far with 75 wounded. It says that homes, factories, a pharmacy college and a museum have been hit as well as other military targets. It also claims to have shot down 77 of the incoming cruise missiles.

Britain and America pledged to press on with the attacks, and claimed the air strikes were achieving their short-term goals. "I believe we are on course to achieve our military objectives," Tony Blair said last night. "There is no doubt we are significantly damaging Saddam Hussein's military capability and reducing ... the threat that he poses to the region and to the world."

The Pentagon set out the most detailed list of targets so far, saying it had hit 11 sites linked to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, five airfields and 19 security facilities.

Judging by the US briefing and a list of targets put out by the Iraqi opposition, there has been a particular concentration on the Special Republican Guard, one of the main military props to the regime. It is detailed to guard the leadership, its homes and offices and maintain internal security.

The US has also crippled a key oil installation near Basra that was used for oil exports, hitting Iraq's ability to export oil to pay for food. William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary, said: "With respect to the facility in Basra, that is a very limited attack on a facility that provides for the illegal shipment of oil." Iraq is also allowed to export oil legally under a UN scheme, and the damage to the Basra installation will severely set back economic recovery.

Underscoring their desire to remove President Saddam, US aircraft were also reported to have dropped propaganda leaflets in the mainly Shia areas of southern Iraq, where an uprising in 1991 was brutally put down after the Gulf War.

RAF Tornados were in action once again last night. On Thursday night, they attacked a base where Iraq was alleged to be developing pilotless aircraft to drop chemical and biological weapons. The Ministry of Defence released film of a Tornado destroying a hangar, hitting a surface-to-air missile site and attacking a radio mast.

According to reports from the region, the aerial campaign is being managed from a joint operations command room at a Saudi airbase south of Riyadh, though Saudi Arabia has not permitted its bases to be used for actual sorties.

More cruise missiles have been launched than during the Gulf War, with about 290 being fired since Wednesday. However, there was no sign yesterday of the offensive coming to an end. George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, hinted that bombing could be resumed even if it was suspended for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which begins tonight. "We're not going away," he said. "We have got to be prepared for a long stay. But in the meantime this week we will have caused a huge amount of damage to his military regime."

Both Britain and America have launched a diplomatic offensive to shore up support for the military strikes. "Even if some people don't agree with the military action, they understand why it is necessary to be sure that Saddam Hussein is kept in his cage, because if he is allowed out of his cage, he is a danger to the world," the Prime Minister said at a Downing Street press conference.

Mr Blair also wrote a 1,000-word article for the European press after criticism from France and the withdrawal by Russia of its ambassadors to London and Washington. "We have acted because we must act to counter a real and present danger from a tyrant who has never hesitated to use whatever weapons come to hand," he wrote.

Echoing his statement to the Commons, Mr Blair said President Saddam had never kept his word. "The risk he poses is real, not theoretical. What happens once the military action is over depends at least as much on Saddam as it does on us. I hope he will finally come to his senses."

The effort to hold together Western support for the military action was reinforced in telephone calls by Mr Blair to Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, Jacques Chirac, the French President, Massimo D'Alema, the Italian Prime Minister, and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, according to Downing Street. He was also due to speak to Crown Prince Abdullah, first Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia.

Mr Blair prepared public opinion for casualties. Saying the decision to attack had been with great regret, he added: "There will be casualties in Iraq, despite all our efforts.