- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair, putting his political career on the line, defended in Parliament on Tuesday his decision to put Britain on course to war in Iraq as a tough choice but one that was necessary to resolve a crisis he said would determine international politics for generations.

Nearly 2,500 miles away, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein met with his top military commanders to discuss combat preparations after U.S. President George W. Bush gave him and his two sons a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Baghdad. Official Iraqi television showed him wearing military fatigues for the first time in many years.

Saddam's eldest son Uday rejected Bush's ultimatum and said the Iraqis "will make the mothers and wives of the U.S. and British invading soldiers shed blood instead of tears on their sons and husbands" in case they invaded Iraq.

The deadline will expire at about 4:15 a.m. Thursday Iraqi time.

An invasion appeared more likely than ever. In an impassioned, hour-long plea for Parliament to support his commitment of British troops to combat against Saddam, Blair said that to back away now — perhaps only hours from a shooting war — would send a dangerous message to other "tyrants" and leave Iraq's people in "pitiless terror."

It was billed as perhaps the most important address of his political life, and Blair left no doubt as to what was at stake: the future of the United Nations, the way the world confronts the central security threat of the 21st century, and perhaps his own future as prime minister.

With British and U.S. forces poised to strike, Blair said, "to retreat now … would put at hazard all that we hold dearest, turn the United Nations back into a talking shop, stifle the first steps of progress in the Middle East, leave the Iraqi people to the mercy of events on which we would have relinquished all power to influence to the better."

He then pronounced, to loud cheering from the House of Commons, that "I would not be party to such a course" — a comment that seemed to indicate he would quit if his demand for support was turned down in a parliamentary vote later Tuesday night.

That was always unlikely, even though Blair faced perhaps the biggest revolt of parliamentary members in his own ruling Labor Party in his six years in office. Those votes were lost, but the prime minister was virtually guaranteed victory by solid support of the opposition Conservative Party, backing his pro-war stance.

The show of support, with countries such as Turkey, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and even perhaps France conveying signals of cooperation Tuesday, has made increasingly likely the prospect of forcing Iraq to disarm and reorganize its political structure.

Another critical vote is facing Ankara, where the Turkish leadership is expected to re-submit a bill that would authorize some form of access to U.S. military forces. Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who assumed office only last week, held emergency talks with his party leaders and Cabinet members Tuesday in anticipation of handing Parliament a resolution on Wednesday.

Turkey's fragile economy — and its stock market and currency in particular — has taken a hit since the measure was narrowly defeated early this month.

Meanwhile, U.N. weapons inspectors began leaving Iraq Tuesday along with droves of diplomats. Six inspectors were seen leaving al-Hayat Hotel and several others were seen leaving al-Rimal hotel, al-Jazeera television reported. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had ordered their evacuation on Monday, along with that of U.N. humanitarian workers and border monitors from the country.

The Chinese, Japanese and Czech governments evacuated their embassy staff. They join the Indians, Pakistanis and others who have already left Baghdad for safer locations.

Russia, a strong opponent of any war on its Arab ally, said it will keep its embassy open. The Poles said they would keep their embassy open, adding that if needed, the staff would be evacuated.

Iraqis themselves intensified their preparations Tuesday for an apparently U.S. war against their country, and prices of drinking water, gold and dollars rose.

Heavy military reinforcements, such as tanks, have not rolled down Baghdad streets, at least not yet. But ministries and government institutions have been fortified with sandbags in an unprecedented move that indicates that Iraqi officials are convinced that this time the U.S. war will be the fiercest.

Hadir al-Rabie, a 37-year-old journalist, told United Press International that Iraqis were also trying to access water by digging wells in their gardens. "We are also stockpiling fuel," said al-Rabie, but he added that he worried that "if a bomb strikes near the house, it will immediately be set on fire."

Countries around the world responded to Bush's remarks Monday night. One of the few countries to actually offer troops toward any war, Australia said Tuesday that disarming Iraq was in the country's national interest.

"The government's principal objective is the disarmament of Iraq," Prime Minister John Howard said, noting that 2,000 Australian troops would fight alongside U.S. and British forces.

"However, should military action be required to achieve this, it is axiomatic that such action will result in the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime."

Britain and Australia have a combined force of 47,000 in the Persian Gulf region for any war against Iraq.

With an eye on preserving the Americans' security relationship in East Asia — especially in the face of the North Korean nuclear crisis — Tokyo and Seoul on Tuesday both announced support for Washington's stance.

In other reaction, China, which was also opposed to a war, said it still hoped for a peaceful resolution of the issue while calling on Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions.

"Now the war on Iraq is like an arrow put upon a bow during this touch-and-go situation," said China's new premier, Wen Jiabao.

"However, even as long as there is … hope, China will not give up efforts to solve the Iraq issue through political means."

French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday condemned the ultimatum as "without justification," adding: "Iraq does not represent today an immediate threat that justifies an immediate war."

However, the French ambassador to the United States said in an interview on CNN that "if Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons, it would change completely the situation for the French president and the French government."

Syria, a U.N. Security Council member which voted a surprise "yes" to the November resolution that promised "serious consequences" if Iraq did not disarm, disputed Bush's claim that previous U.N. resolutions supported the ultimatum. An official spokesman said it "contradicts U.N. resolutions, charter, principles and goals" and insisted a peaceful solution to the crisis was still possible.

Bush's ultimatum to the Iraqi leadership came at the end of two days of failed diplomacy. Bush and the leaders of Britain and Spain, blunted by Russian and French veto threats in the U.N. Security Council last week, decided against seeking a vote on the U.N. resolution that they proposed two weeks ago to try to get Security Council support for force.

"The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities," Bush said Monday. "So we will rise to ours." The draft resolution would have authorized war if Saddam did not disarm by March 17, which was Monday.

The impasse at the Security Council began last September when Bush told the U.N. General Assembly to confront the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq — or stand aside as the United States acted.

Since the diplomatic victory of a unanimous Security Council vote in November, Bush has repeatedly maintained that Saddam has lied to the international community and must be disarmed with force. He said if the world body did not act against Iraq, the United States will along with a "coalition of the willing."

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(With reporting by Al Webb in London, Ghassan al-Kadi and Thanaa Imam in Baghdad, Katherine Arms in Hong Kong, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, William M. Reilly at the United Nations, and Nicholas M. Horrock and Kathy Gambrell in Washington.)

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