Saddam steps back from brink: As deadline passes, White House says Iraq has moved missile batteries to less threatening positions

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The Independent Online
IN AN APPARENT eleventh- hour climb-down, Iraq has moved many of its missile batteries in the south of the country to less threatening positions.

And in another move which seemed to reduce tension between Washington and Baghdad, Iraqi jets that had violated the no-fly zone have been removed from al- Jarrah air field near the 32nd parallel, a Pentagon official said.

But last night US experts were still assessing whether Iraq had done enough to meet Wednesday's ultimatum and avoid retaliatory strikes from US and allied jets on military targets.

Shortly before the deadline passed at 10.15 GMT last night, the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said in a written statement that there had been 'a good deal of movement involving these missiles' but that officials were still determining their exact location. 'We continue to keep the situation in Iraq under close scrutiny . . . We are still in the process of determining whether Iraq is in compliance with the terms of the coalition demarche.'

A senior Western diplomat said there was still 'no conclusive evidence' that Iraq had complied with the demand to move the missile batteries out of the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, declared by the allies to protect Shias from Baghdad's repression.

However, the strong implication was that an immediate allied attack was now unlikely.

In Washington, the mood was tense throughout yesterday, as President George Bush met his national security advisers and later top CIA officials. American reconnaissance aircraft and spy satellites tried to pierce the clouds and check whether SA-2 and SA-3 missile batteries were being moved back north of the 32nd parallel. From Iraq, there was only belligerence. In much harsher language than that used by Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the United Nations the night before, the deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, rejected the allied demands, emphasising Iraq's claim to sovereignty over all its territory.

Iraq, he told an emergency afternoon cabinet meeting in Baghdad, would not heed the ultimatum, 'and will uphold its right to maintain its air defence bases where they are'. Should bases be attacked, 'Iraq will certainly respond in kind to the aggression'.

But as the deadline expired, it was not clear whether those words were a smokescreen behind which the missiles were being quietly shifted, or a signal that Iraq would remain defiant, even in the virtual certainty of a US-led air strike.

Bill Clinton, the President- elect, stood behind Mr Bush over the crisis, on which he received daily briefings. 'There is no daylight between our positions,' he told reporters after a Texas meeting with the Mexican leader, Carlos Salinas. In London, John Major said: 'There must no more flying in the no-fly zone and he (President Saddam) must remove the missiles. That's been made perfectly clear to him. We have set a time frame for that. I hope he will comply.'

Lee Hamilton, the influential Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said earlier that Washington and Baghdad were on a 'collision course'. President Saddam was 'pushing and probing and testing us in this period of transition. And at some point when Bill Clinton is President, he'll continue that

challenge.'

For the moment, though, the challenge was to Mr Bush. And with 11 days of his presidency remaining he seemed as calm and determined as in the run-up to the Gulf war.

Mr Fitzwater curtly dismissed both the threats from Mr Aziz and Thursday's offer by Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's UN ambassador, for Washington to send a high-level delegation to Baghdad. 'We don't want to get into a dialogue with them,' Mr Fitzwater told reporters. 'They know our position; we'll have to wait and see.'

Every sign here was that if President Saddam did not comply with last night's deadline, the confrontation that began when a US F-16 shot down an Iraqi MiG 25 as it violated the no-fly zone in southern Iraq on 27 December would lead to the first significant allied military action against Iraq since Operation Desert Storm was launched in January 1991.

Iraq yesterday barred UN aircraft from flying into Habbaniyah airport, near Baghdad, stopping UN weapons destruction teams entering the country. They do not have to cross the no-fly zone.

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