Iraqi leadership rejects U.S. demand that Saddam and sons go into exile; U.N. weapons inspectors pull out

Tuesday, March 18th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraq's leadership on Tuesday rejected the U.S. ultimatum for President Saddam Hussein and his family to leave Iraq or face war. U.N. weapons inspectors, meanwhile, pulled out of Iraq as military action drew near.

Saddam's elder son, Odai Hussein, also rejected the U.S. demand, saying earlier Tuesday that President Bush is “unstable” and “should give up power in America with his family.”

The leadership's decision was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council _ Iraq's highest executive body _ and the leadership of the ruling Baath party, Iraq's al-Shabab television reported. Saddam chaired the meeting, it said.

A statement read by the announcer said the meeting condemned Bush's ultimatum.

“Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv,” it said.

Later, the announcer said that mass demonstrations would be organized throughout Iraq on Tuesday to express support for Saddam.

“The march of struggle will continue against the American, English and Zionist aggressors,” said the statement from the joint meeting.

Earlier in the day, a planeload of U.N. weapons inspectors left Baghdad aboard a flight to Cyprus, joining the exodus of diplomats, aid workers and other foreigners.

The inspectors were ordered out Monday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. U.N. officials said about 150 inspectors, support staff, humanitarian workers and observers would be evacuated.

“We left Iraq with a sense of sadness,” U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said in Cyprus. “We have done our job to the extent that we could. All the staff did this the best possible way, both objectively and professionally.”

Ueki said 56 inspectors as well as support staff were on the first flight. He said that two more flights were planned and that the exodus would be complete by the end of the day.

In a speech Monday night, Bush gave Saddam and his two sons 48 hours to go into exile or face war. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush said in a televised address.

He asked Iraqi troops not to “fight for a dying regime,” use weapons of mass destruction or blow up oil wells. He warned that war criminals will be prosecuted.

It was not clear if the speech was widely seen in Iraq, where information is tightly controlled and most Iraqis are barred from owning satellite dishes.

Top military officers are likely to be among the minority of privileged Iraqis with access to satellite TV and may have seen it. Lower-ranking officers may have been able to hear the speech on radio stations like the BBC and Washington's Radio Sawa, which are clandestinely listened to in the country.

In a statement distributed by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Saddam's elder son warned that a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States. Any attack on Iraq, he said, would leave “the wives and mothers of those who fight us constantly crying. ... They should not believe there is a single safe spot for them inside Iraq or outside Iraq.”

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri said war would destabilize the region as well as the rest of the world. “I think this would be a mistake, a grave mistake from the part of the American administration to launch this war against my country,” he said in New York.

Nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops are in the region poised to strike.

Before Bush spoke, Saddam warned that American forces would find an Iraqi fighter ready to die for his country “behind every rock, tree and wall.”

He acknowledged that Iraq had once possessed weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from Iran and Israel, but insisted it no longer has them. “When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says,” Saddam said.

Baghdad residents braced for war, lining up for gas and bread and taping their windows.

U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Baghdad in November for the first time in four years. During four months of inspections, arms experts traveled the length of the country hunting for banned weapons of mass destruction.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has said that inspectors never found any “smoking gun,” although they did find 18 empty warheads designed for chemical agents. Inspectors also oversaw the destruction of Al Samoud 2 missiles.

U.N. workers have been gradually leaving Iraq over the past several weeks because of the deepening crisis. Diplomats from Germany, the Czech Republic, India, China, Bahrain and Britain are also leaving Iraq and neighboring Kuwait for fear that Baghdad might retaliate against them in the event of a war.

U.N. aid agencies have maintained a significant presence in Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, helping to ease the effects of years of war and of U.N.-imposed sanctions. Hundreds of people were working for such agencies as the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Children's Fund and the World Food Program.