- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

BAGHDAD Iraq yesterday invited the two chief U.N. weapons inspectors back to Baghdad to discuss unsettled disarmament issues, even as President Bush prepared to meet today with top allies about a likely war.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein also placed his nation on an official war footing, issuing a decree dividing Iraq into four military regions under the command of his most trusted lieutenants.
Saddam placed a son, Qusai, in charge of his regime's heartland, Baghdad, and his hometown, Tikrit.
Saddam retained sole authority to use aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles against invaders, according to the presidential decree distributed by the Iraqi News Agency.
Iraq's invitation to chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei came on the eve of Mr. Bush's emergency meeting with Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain on a Portuguese island in the eastern Atlantic. The three allied leaders' agenda: to work out their next steps as the U.N. Security Council blocks their bid to give Iraq an ultimatum to fully disarm or face war.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Mr. Blix said he would study Saddam's invitation and discuss it with the Security Council. Asked if the Iraqi move was a stunt, he told CNN: "I certainly wouldn't call it a stunt. … We'll have to give serious thought to what the answer will be."
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the chief inspectors "would be wise to wait until after the summit before making any determination about going to Baghdad."
With nearly 250,000 U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf ready to strike, Iraq was emboldened by stiff opposition to war at the Security Council, where France and other nations insist inspectors should be given more time to determine the status of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. As pressure on Baghdad increased in recent months, Saddam made gestures to show his regime is cooperating.
France, Russia and Germany issued a joint statement yesterday insisting there was no reason for war but calling for foreign ministers to meet this week at the Security Council to set a disarmament timetable.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said his country would accept a "tight" timetable but not an ultimatum that could automatically trigger war as the United States, Britain and Spain sought. Still, he acknowledged war was becoming inevitable. "It is difficult to imagine what could stop this machine," he told France 2 television.
Tomorrow, Mr. Blix is to present the Security Council with plans for upcoming inspections. He has said that Baghdad is showing more "proactive" cooperation, but the United States and its allies insist Saddam is deceiving inspectors.
Eight U.S. warships yesterday crossed the Mediterranean and entered the Red Sea to join the military buildup.
Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei have visited Baghdad two times since the United Nations resumed weapons inspections in Iraq in November after a four-year break. Each time they pressed the Iraqis for greater cooperation. Iraq contends it no longer has weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said Saddam's science adviser, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi the point man on disarmament invited the two chief inspectors to come to Baghdad at the "earliest suitable date" to discuss "means to speed up joint cooperation … in all fields, especially facilitating the verification process of issues considered outstanding by Blix and ElBaradei."
The letter of invitation said Iraq achieved "noted progress" on issues mentioned in a March 6 letter by UNMOVIC, the U.N. agency mandated to search for any signs of weapons of mass destruction, according to the ministry statement. It gave no details.
The inspectors are demanding that Iraq address unanswered disarmament questions particularly that it account for stocks of anthrax and VX nerve gas it claims to have destroyed in the early 1990s, without offering documentation.
Mr. Blix received a 25-page letter from Iraq late Friday on the VX nerve agent. Parts of the letter in Arabic will have to be translated and studied to determine what is new and, if so, whether it helps to resolve outstanding issues, said Mr. Blix's spokesman, Ewen Buchanan.
Iraq promised a letter on anthrax as well, but Mr. Buchanan made no mention of that.
Iraqi authorities also gave inspectors the names of 183 more scientists involved in chemical weapons programs, U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said yesterday.
That brings the total number of names submitted by Baghdad to 315. The U.N. team has requested interviews with 325 persons, seeking information about secret programs or undocumented weapon destruction.
U.N. weapons inspectors yesterday oversaw the destruction of three banned Iraqi missiles at a military site north of Baghdad, Mr. Ueki said. A missile launcher also was destroyed. The Iraqis so far have crushed 68 Al Samoud 2 missiles, out of an estimated 150.

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