- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Iraq's failure to destroy an arsenal of forbidden missiles would be irrefutable proof that President Saddam Hussein means to defy international demands to disarm, Britain's ambassador said yesterday.
"For those who still need to be convinced, [Saddams] failure to destroy these missiles would be the clinching argument," said Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to Washington.
At issue is the fate of dozens of al Samoud 2 missiles, surface-to-surface weapons suitable for battlefield use, which United Nations weapons inspectors have ordered destroyed by Saturday because they exceed limits imposed after the 1991 Gulf war.
Saddam appeared ready to defy the U.N. order, telling CBS News anchor Dan Rather in a lengthy interview Monday that all Iraqi missiles comply with U.N. restrictions.
Asked directly by Mr. Rather whether Iraq intended to destroy the al Samoud missiles, Saddam said, "Which missiles are you talking about? We do not have missiles that go beyond proscribed ranges by the U.N."
During the course of the two-hour interview, Saddam was asked whether, if there is an invasion, he would set fire to Iraq's oil fields and blow up its dams. He replied: "Iraq does not burn its wealth, and it does not destroy its dams."
He also said he has no intention of going into exile, preferring to "die" in Iraq, according to the interview, which is to be aired today.
"I was born here in Iraq. … Whoever decides to forsake his nation from whoever requests is not true to the principles. We will die here," Saddam told the network.
"We will die in this country, and we will maintain our honor the honor that is required in front of our people.
"I believe that whoever offers Saddam asylum in his own country is in fact a person without morals," the Iraqi leader added.
Mr. Rather has not yet said how he got the interview, but has said he was not sure the meeting would go ahead until just before his encounter Monday with the Iraqi leader.
Saddam's comments on the looming conflict will be broadcast in full late today in the United States.
Mr. Rather is the first U.S. journalist to meet Saddam in a decade.
Meanwhile, U.N. inspectors in Baghdad said Iraqi tests on the al Samoud missiles were ongoing, with one held as recently as Monday.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that the U.N. demand was "still being studied."
The showdown over the missiles came as the United States and Britain continued a diplomatic press for U.N. support of a military strike against Iraq in the face of strong international skepticism.
Bush administration officials said the al Samouds were just "the tip of a very large weapons of mass destruction iceberg" demonstrating that Saddam had not acted in good faith.
"These prohibited weapons should never have existed in the first place," said State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck. "The international community should not have to force Iraq to back down each time."
Destroying the al Samouds would leave in place an extensive testing infrastructure and other missiles that violate international sanctions, she said.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Sergei Lavrov, whose country has opposed the U.S. hard line on Baghdad, said Iraq had to comply with inspectors' requests and said a Russian envoy to Iraq had recently been told that Baghdad would comply.
U.N. weapons inspectors maintain that the al Samoud 2 missiles exceed the maximum 93-mile range imposed on Iraq after its defeat in the 1991 Gulf war.
Failure to begin destroying Iraq's arsenal of dozens of al Samouds by the Saturday deadline could provide the clearest case yet of Iraqi defiance as the Bush administration presses its case that only military action can force Saddam to disarm.
A draft resolution offered Monday in the Security Council by the United States, Britain and Spain declared that Iraq has "failed to take the final opportunity" to disarm.
But a French counterproposal, backed by Russia and Germany, calls on the international body to give weapons inspectors in Iraq several more months to continue their mission.
Trans-Atlantic tensions over Iraq showed little sign of abating yesterday.
Howard Leach, U.S. ambassador to France, said in a television interview in Paris that a French veto of the U.S.-backed resolution could have serious consequences for bilateral relations.
"A veto, to my mind, would be very unfriendly, and we wouldn't look very kindly on it," Mr. Leach said.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told reporters in New York yesterday that the demand to destroy the missiles was "not open for debate."
He did not comment directly on Saddam's remarks, saying only that "we have had no official response from the Iraqi side" on the al Samoud question.
Mr. Blix, who must file a written report to the Security Council this weekend and brief the 15-nation body on March 7, offered some mildly optimistic words about Baghdad's recent efforts to work with inspectors.
He said Iraqi officials had supplied six letters with new information to the U.N. teams, listing a newly discovered bomb shell at a known biological-weapons research site and supplying the names of 38 more Iraqi scientists who are reported to have been involved in the country's prohibited biological-weapons research efforts.
"There are some elements here that are positive which need to be explored further," Mr. Blix said.
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Amir Saadi, Saddam's liaison to the U.N. inspection teams, said yesterday that Iraq had "made some breakthroughs" in its dealings with the weapons inspectors.
But U.S. officials said any progress came too late and didn't deal with vast stocks of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction still unaccounted for.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said, "We had predicted there would be these cynical dribs and drabs put out by Saddam Hussein. This is typical of the pattern he's followed for over a decade."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was "still an offramp" for Saddam to take to avoid war but that it would take a complete change of heart in Baghdad leading to rapid disarmament.
U.S. diplomatic efforts to press the case for a hard line against Baghdad faced tough going.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the State Department's point man on arms control issues, said his talks in Moscow had failed to move Russian officials closer to the U.S. line.
"I didn't detect any shift in their position," Mr. Bolton said after talks with senior officials in the Kremlin.
But, he added, "Today is not the first and I am sure it is not the last of the diplomatic discussions."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made little public headway during a visit on Monday to China, which also opposes an early military strike by the United States.
China, Russia and France all have vetoes in any Security Council vote.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced sharp questioning from members of his Labor Party on the eve of a vote in Parliament on war with Iraq.
Mr. Blair offered a strong defense of his tough stand against Saddam despite new polls in Britain showing rising opposition to war.
Mr. Blair said giving the inspectors more time, as called for in the French resolution, was "absurd" if Iraq was determined not to cooperate with the inspectors.
"They are not a detective agency, and, even if they were, Iraq is a country roughly the size of France," Mr. Blair said.
U.S. efforts bore more fruit in Turkey, where the Turkish parliament yesterday took up but did not act on a government-backed proposal that would authorize an American-led military force of about 62,000 troops to bolster a northern front against Saddam.
Despite popular opposition to war in Turkey, the measure is expected to pass.


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