Saddam backs down on missiles

The latest crisis between Iraq and the United States was defused yesterday after Baghdad complied with an ultimatum to remove anti-aircraft missiles from the no-fly zone in the south of the country.

The White House confirmed that Iraq was 'acceding to the requirements' spelled out in the ultimatum delivered to it last Wednesday by the US, Britain, France and Russia.

The statement said that following the ultimatum, Iraq had indeed moved the offending missile batteries to new positions outside the no-fly zone, which is patrolled by US aircraft. The systems, believed to amount to five batteries of ageing Soviet-made missiles, no longer threatened US jets, it said.

'Once again Saddam Hussein has backed down in the face of alliance solidarity,' said President Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater. He added scornfully that President Saddam remained the pariah of the international community.

Though the immediate crisis seemed to have passed, US officials insisted that the ultimatum remained in force. No further warning would be given if Baghdad moved the missiles back into threatening positions. 'The hammer is still hanging there,' one official remarked.

Baghdad, meanwhile, gave no sign of acknowledging any kind of climbdown. A spokesman for Saddam Hussein, writing in the government daily, Al-Jumhouriya, enjoined Iraqis to prepare for an 'honourable holy war' against the US and its allies. Iraq had 'no choice but to resist and fight for survival'.

Saddam Hussein himself was rumoured to be preparing to make a personal television appearance yesterday evening. Western diplomats were fully prepared for him to declare himself the victor once again in this latest confrontation with his Gulf war foes.

'This is the pattern Saddam has established. Challenge us and then retreat,' one diplomat remarked.

In another sign of belligerence, Iraq declared that it was preparing to ban the flights into the country of United Nations inspection staff on UN aircraft. Rejecting the order, the UN Security Council said it would make further work of the inspection teams all but impossible.

'The implication is that we are no longer allowed to use our own aircraft to fly into Iraq, and that if we wish to use aircraft, we must use Iraqi chartered aircraft,' a UN spokesman complained.

Delivered last Wednesday, the allied ultimatum gave Iraq until Friday night at 22.15 GMT to move surface-to-air missiles deployed in positions inside the no- fly zone considered threatening to US patrol jets. Of most concern was the configuration of the batteries in clusters that could have launched multiple attacks on the jets.

Final clarification of whether those formations had been broken up had been delayed for some hours after the passage of the deadline because of bad weather in the area, obscuring pictures from reconnaissance aircraft and overhead satellites.

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