US mobilises to strike at Iraq

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THE PROSPECT of a punitive military strike against Iraq, led by the United States and Britain, increased yesterday as the United Nations announced the sudden evacuation of all non-essential personnel from Baghdad, including weapons inspectors and humanitarian aid workers.

The US said yesterday that action could occur without warning as it sent 3,000 troops and 129 combat aircraft - including bombers and F117-A stealth fighters - to the Gulf. "Saddam Hussein has been given adequate warning," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Henry Shelton, said.

The decisions to withdraw UN staff were taken on the direct urging of the US government, UN officials confirmed last night. That fact alone served to fuel expectations that preparations for military action are in their final stages.

Saddam Hussein triggered the crisis on 31 October when he ruptured all co-operation with Unscom, the UN body charged with ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, spoke out on the crisis at a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday.

In comments meant to prepare the American public for a possible military campaign, he said: "We continue to hope, indeed pray, that Saddam will comply, but we must be prepared to act if he does not." He added: "A failure to respond could embolden Saddam to act recklessly, signalling to him that he can act with impunity to develop these weapons of mass destruction or threaten his neighbours."

Tony Blair told MPs at Question Time that President Saddam must respond "immediately" if he is to avert strikes. "We will act if he doesn't immediately come back into compliance," the Prime Minister said.

The US aircraft carrier Eisenhower is already in Gulf waters and earlier this week the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, ordered a second carrier, the Enterprise, to speed up its journey to the region to arrive by 23 November.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, issued an eleventh-hour appeal to President Saddam to change course. Mr Annan, who defused the last full- blown crisis with Iraq last February, said he was cutting short a visit to northern Africa and would return to New York this morning to monitor events. There was nothing to indicate that the Secretary-General is planning to visit Baghdad.

US officials said that no final decision on military action had been taken. Diplomats, however, believe that only a reversal by President Saddam can avert military action. There was no sign from Baghdad last night that that was likely. "It almost looks as if Saddam has taken his own decision to take the hard road," one UN source said.

Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, confirmed yesterday that he had decided to withdraw all weapons inspectors from Iraq after receiving a "strong recommendation" to do so from the US. "I took a decision based on safety and in my view it was best that there be no delay," he said.

An emergency UN Security Council meeting was called last night at the request of Russia to discuss the situation. Russia continued yesterday to voice opposition to military action. "Russia considers that use of force will not provide a way out of this situation, will not permit a solution to this problem," Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said in Moscow.

The US and Britain continue to insist that existing UN resolutions on Iraq provide sufficient justification for military intervention. Russia, however, remains adamant that no such justification exists and new resolutions would be needed.

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