March 17, 2003
Posted at: 10:15 p.m. CST
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States advised the United Nations (news - web sites) to withdraw its inspectors from Baghdad, several nations closed their embassies and some foreign journalists left Iraq on Monday in the clearest sign yet that war is imminent.
Baghdad store owners moved their merchandise to the relative safety of warehouses, fearing bombs and looting if a war starts, while residents flooded markets stocking up on food and taped their windows to guard against flying glass.
U.N. observers also halted all operations along the Iraqi-Kuwait border, moving to a heightened state of alert a day after Washington posed a one-day deadline for diplomacy to avert war.
And in northern Iraq, residents streamed out of the city of Chamchamal, a mile from Iraqi forces, heading further into the Kurdish autonomous enclave. Cars, buses, tractors and pickup trucks were laden with rugs, suitcases and other belongings. The enclave is protected by U.S.-British air patrols.
The stepped-up preparation for imminent war followed a blunt warning by President Bush at a summit in the Azores with his allies from Britain, Spain and Portugal for Iraq to disarm.
Following the warning, Germany announced it was closing its embassy in Baghdad and that its charge d'affairs was heading for Jordan. The embassies of China and the Czech Republic were also ordered evacuated, those countries said.
Britain advised all of its citizens except diplomatic staff to leave Kuwait as soon as possible, citing a potential threat from Iraq. The United States ordered all government dependents and nonessential staff out of Kuwait, Syria, Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
In Vienna, Austria, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Monday that the United States had advised the United Nations to begin pulling its inspectors from Iraq.
He said the Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) had been informed, and that the council would take up the issue later Monday.
U.N. officials have said their inspectors and support staff in Iraq could be evacuated in as little as 48 hours.
"A lot depends on the Iraqis," a senior U.N. inspector told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. "If they let us use aircraft to get out, we could be gone in 48 hours or even less. If they won't let us fly out, we would have to drive to a border, and that could mean an eight-hour journey across hot desert. It would take longer, but we would get out."
Despite the warning, U.N. weapons inspections proceeded Monday. The Information Ministry reported visits to four sites. U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki confirmed that inspection teams were back on the road, but added: "We are ready for any contingency."
Foreign journalists, meanwhile, were heading out of Baghdad for Jordan. Two ABC reporters said they were leaving Monday. NBC said it was pulling its six-member television crew from the country, a spokeswoman told The New York Times.
China's official Xinhua news agency said six Chinese reporters were also leaving.
A week ago, there were 450 foreign journalists in Baghdad. On Monday, the number was down to 300, the Information Ministry said.
Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, meanwhile, launched a verbal attack on the leaders of the United States, Britain, Spain and Portugal over their stance at Sunday's summit.
"The talk that came out from the summit of international outlaws ... shows that they are in a hurry to commit ... aggression on Iraq," he told reporters.
"We have done everything and we shall continue to cooperate with all efforts in order to avert the aggression on our country. But if they give us no other alternative but to defend our country, we will," he said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, speaking to reporters late Sunday in Iraq's first reaction to Bush's statement at the Azores summit, said an "inferno" awaited any invaders.
With nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf ready to strike, Bush and the other leaders said the United Nations must decide by Monday to support "the immediate and unconditional disarmament" of Iraq.
"We are ready to bury aggressors in Iraq's deserts," he said. "Whoever sets foot in Iraq will not leave it safe. Whoever comes to Iraq will find an inferno awaiting him," he said.
President Saddam Hussein warned that if Iraq is attacked, it will take the war anywhere in the world "wherever there is sky, land or water."
He has made his own preparations for war, sidestepping the military chain of command to place one of his sons and three other trusted aides in charge of the defense of the nation. The decree issued late Saturday placed Iraq on a war footing.
The United States has sought an ultimatum for Saddam to disarm or face war. France, Russia and Germany have urged the Security Council to set a timeline — but no ultimatum — for Baghdad to fulfill disarmament tasks set by weapons inspectors. French President Jacques Chirac proposed a 30-day time frame, though Germany objected that inspectors should have as long as they want.
On Sunday, U.N. weapons inspectors flew five of their eight helicopters to Syria and then on to Cyprus after an insurance company suspended its coverage. Germany issued a new travel warning, urging its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately."
Other European diplomats, including those from Switzerland and Greece, were due to leave Monday, part of an expected exodus from the country's estimated 60 missions, diplomatic sources said Sunday.
Even as it braced for conflict, the government destroyed two more of its banned Al Samoud 2 missiles on Sunday, bringing the number destroyed to 70 since March 1. The United Nations ordered the missiles eliminated because they were found to exceed a 93-mile range limit.
Iraq also handed over videotapes of mobile biological weapons laboratories to inspectors. Iraq says the videos show the laboratories do not violate U.N. resolutions.