March 18, 2003
Posted at: 9:29 a.m. CST
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's leadership on Tuesday rejected the U.S. ultimatum that Saddam Hussein and his sons leave Iraq or face war, and the United Nations pulled its weapons inspection staff out of the country as battle appeared inevitable.
In what appeared to signal the end of Arab efforts to avert a war, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called off a possible last-minute peacemaking trip to Iraq on Tuesday.
"Due to developments we've witnessed in the last few hours, it won't be possible for the secretary-general to visit Baghdad," said his spokesman, Hisham Youssef.
Iraq's al-Shabab television, owned by Saddam's son Odai, said the decision to defy President Bush's ultimatum was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council — Iraq's highest executive body — and the leadership of the ruling Baath party. Saddam chaired the session.
A statement read by the announcer said the meeting condemned the ultimatum Bush issued in Washington on Monday night.
"Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv," it said.
"The pathetic Bush was hoping ... to achieve his evil targets without a fight through that declaration (the ultimatum) which reflects a state of isolation and defeat from which he and his pathetic allies are suffering from," the statement from the meeting said.
Odai Hussein had already issued his own rejection of the ultimatum in a statement distributed by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.
He said Bush was "unstable" and that the U.S. leader "should give up power in America with his family." He also warned that a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States.
There was no immediate word from Odai's younger brother, Qusai, now widely thought to be Saddam's right-hand man. He is in charge of Saddam's personal protection and the elite Republican Guard Corps.
U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq earlier Tuesday, the latest in a steady stream of foreigners to abandon Iraq in recent days. They were ordered out Monday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the United States indicated war was near.
A plane carrying the inspectors took off from Saddam International Airport at about 10:25 a.m. and landed about 90 minutes later in Larnaca, Cyprus, where the inspectors have a rear base.
U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said 56 inspectors were on board, as well as support staff. Reporters at the Baghdad airport saw about 80 people boarding buses for the plane at the end of the tarmac.
U.N. officials said Monday about 150 inspectors, support staff, humanitarian workers and U.N. observers would be evacuated from Iraq.
In a speech Monday night, after failing to secure U.N. authorization to use force to disarm Iraq, Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to step down or face war.
"The tyrant will soon be gone," Bush said in the televised address to the nation.
It wasn't clear if the ultimatum 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.
Iraq's 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, backed by five aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf.
Defiant to the end, Saddam warned that American forces would find an Iraqi fighter ready to die for his country "behind every rock, tree and wall."
But he made a late bid Monday to avert war, acknowledging that Iraq had once possessed weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from Iran and Israel, but insisting that it no longer has them.
"We are not weapons collectors," the official Iraqi News Agency quoted him as telling Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, who was visiting Baghdad in a quest to avert war.
"When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says," Saddam said.