Saddam's last-ditch plea to West

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The Independent Online
AS THE United States and Britain stood on the brink of unleashing air-strikes against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator claimed last night he was not trying to create a crisis but was pressing his case for an end to sanctions.

Simultaneously in Washington, President Bill Clinton seemed to offer the tiniest of grace periods for Baghdad, saying that air-strikes could yet be avoided if Iraq allowed the United Nations weapons inspectors to complete their work. "Saddam still has it within his hands to end this crisis now," Mr Clinton declared.

In his first public comments since the latest dispute erupted at the start of this month, President Saddam said he would "accept positively" any initiative that met "these just and balanced demands".

The remarks, relayed by the Iraqi News Agency after a meeting with the Russian ambassador to Baghdad, are unlikely to assuage the West, but are a first acknowledgement that a devastating attack is imminent unless he complies with the conditions of the UN.

However, the thrust of the language of Western leaders was as stern as ever, as a force of some 200 combat aircraft and cruise-missile carrying warships was poised in the Gulf, awaiting only the final order to attack. Other reinforcements, including B-52 and B-1 bombers and a second aircraft- carrier group, are on their way.

Mr Clinton said Iraq was still trying to have sanctions removed without surrendering its weapons of mass destruction, and this was unacceptable. "None of us can tolerate an Iraq free to develop these weapons with impunity."

The attacks could start at any time. Britain and the US have made clear there will be no ultimatums, still less any protracted bargaining over the terms of a resumption of UN inspections - of which President Saddam's remarks last night could be seen as the forerunner. Both London and Washington are adamant: the Iraqi dictator has a simple choice - either full compliance or face the consequences.

Some analysts believe strikes will begin in the next 36 hours, perhaps earlier, but other signals pointed to a few days' delay. A White House spokesman said last night that President Clinton still planned to leave for a week-long trip to Asia today, adding that Washington wanted a peaceful resolution.

A trip to the region next week by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was still on last night, but could be called off at any moment. The aim of Mr Cook's trip is to gauge whether Egypt and Saudi Arabia - both of whom have warned President Saddam that the crisis is entirely of his own making - could make him change his mind. If hostilities had already started, the visit would be pointless.

"The Iraqis need no further warning," the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said, while paying lip service to the notion that a diplomatic solution was still possible. In London, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said President Saddam had only "a very short period of time" left in which to comply.

If not, the "inevitable" air-strikes would be aimed at crippling Iraq's military infrastructure, and doing by force what the UN inspectors could not achieve peaceably. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, warned President Saddam that he should not doubt "the total seriousness of our purpose".

Unlike the previous crisis in February, Iraq stands virtually isolated. Even the Russians, President Saddam's ally on the Security Council at that time, could offer no solace. Russia still opposes the use of force, but with London and Washington insisting they have all the authorisation they need for military action, and no prospect of another mission to Baghdad by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, such objections are now academic. The crisis was "getting beyond political control", the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, said, making clear that Moscow was powerless to influence events.

The majority of Arab governments hold President Saddam responsible for the current crisis; France - as exasperated as Britain and the US with his reneging - is resigned to the use of military force; and only Iran has come out unequivocally in sympathy with Iraq.

At Friday prayers in Baghdad, however, the mood was intransigent. As queues grew at petrol stations and prices of key commodities began to rise in the capital's markets, preachers warned that the country would fight to the end, vowing that even America's might would be insufficient to overcome a united people.

One urged the world's Arabs and Muslims to declare war on America and its allies, saying: "Do not be claws in the hands of Jews and Americans."

Meanwhile the 50-odd United Nations staff remaining in Baghdad have moved out of their hotels into the UN headquarters building, which offers better protection in the event of air attack. The State Department has warned American citizens around the world against possible terrorist attacks arising from the crisis.

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