Iraq defiant as deadline nears

Wednesday, March 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Saddam Hussein defiantly ignored President Bush's deadline to yield power. Now it appears war against Iraq is imminent, with an American-led invasion force massed around Iraq for an attack.

Warplanes attacked several sites in Iraq's southern “no-fly” zone, including an airfield that officials said may harbor Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel. Also hit were artillery sites within range of U.S. and British forces concentrated in Kuwait.

Saddam showed no sign of accepting a public offer of exile from Bahrain, and his regime gave every appearance of digging in.

“We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership,” a loyal Iraqi parliament assured the Iraqi dictator, and armed members of the ruling Baath party deployed behind hundreds of sandbagged defensive positions in Baghdad.

But ordinary residents fled the capital city in large numbers, hoping to find safety in the countryside. Even before the onset of hostilities, 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to American GIs near the Kuwaiti border.

Bush met periodically throughout the day with his top aides at the White House and sent formal notice to Congress that reliance on “further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” would not suffice to counter “the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the nation “ought to be prepared for the loss” of American lives once the military effort begins to depose Saddam and recover weapons of mass destruction.

Aides said the attack wouldn't necessarily start at the moment of 8 p.m. EST (4 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad) - the deadline Bush fixed in a Monday night speech. Instead, they said the commander in chief would decide on timing based on the advice of his military commanders.

More than 25 protesters were arrested outside the White House, part of a larger group of demonstrators that chanted, banged drums and carried signs that read, “Stop the War on Iraq.”

It seemed unlikely in the extreme.

A U.S.-led force approaching 300,000 troops was massed in the Persian Gulf region, along with 1,000 combat aircraft and five aircraft carrier battle groups. The United States claims the public and private support of 45 other nations in a coalition to topple Saddam. But only Britain, with about 40,000 troops, was making a sizable contribution to the military force.

Hundreds of miles away, at an air base in England, crews loaded bombs aboard giant B-52 combat aircraft.

Apart from the desire to capture weapons of mass destruction, Bush's submission to Congress said a military attack could lead to the discovery of information that would allow the apprehension of terrorists living in the United States. An attack, it said, “is a vital part of the international war on terrorism.”

Despite deep divisions at the United Nations, Bush also claimed “the authority - indeed, given the dangers involved, the duty - to use force against Iraq to protect the security of the American people and to compel compliance with United Nations resolutions.”

The diplomatic wheels turned still at the United Nations where foreign ministers were meeting in the Security Council at the request of the French and Germans, prominent critics of the American military operation.

“This is a sad day for the United Nations,” said the organization's secretary general, Kofi Annan said. “I know that millions of people around the world share this sense of disappointment and are deeply alarmed.”

Bush abandoned diplomacy on Monday, and administration officials blamed French intransigence for the lack of consensus on a new Security Council resolution that would have given Saddam an ultimatum.

The signs of imminent conflict were abundant.

Israel ordered its citizens to start carrying their gas masks to work and to school. And hundreds of Israeli residents fled Tel Aviv, fearful that Iraq would launch missiles against their seaside city, as happened in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Royal Jordanian - the only commercial airline with regularly scheduled flights to Baghdad - said it was canceling them in anticipation of war.

And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered a dual-edged analysis. He blamed Iraq for the approaching military conflict. But he also said he hoped that “different international forces will realize the dangerous repercussions of any military action on the safety and stability of the Middle East region.”

Another country in the region, Bahrain, publicly offered exile to Saddam “in a dignified manner that should not be seen as undermining Iraq's position and capabilities.”

“It's the last-hour chance and we hope that Iraq will accept this offer to avoid war,” Information Minister Nabil al-Hamer told The Associated Press.

But there was no sign the Iraqi leader had any intention of accepting the offer.

Instead, defiance was the order of the day by Iraqi officials.

Exile for the Iraqi leader “is absolutely unthinkable,” said Saadoon Hammadi, speaker of Iraq's parliament.

“He will be in front of everyone. He will fight and guide our country to victory.”