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Iraq invites Blix, ElBaradei to Baghdad to speed up cooperation
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq invited chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei to Baghdad to discuss outstanding disarmament issues as President Bush prepared to meet with his top allies about a possible war.
The invitation came a day before Bush meets prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain in an emergency summit in the Azores to work out their next step after their bid to give Iraq an ultimatum was blocked at the U.N. Security Council.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Blix said he would study the invitation and discuss it with the council. Asked if the Iraqi invitation 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 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 has been emboldened by stiff opposition to war at the Security Council, where France and other nations have insisted inspectors should be given more time. As pressure on Baghdad has increased in past months, it has been making gestures to show it is cooperating with inspectors.
France, Russia and Germany issued a joint statement Saturday insisting there was no reason for war.
, but calling for foreign ministers to meet this week at the Security Council to set a timetable for Iraq to disarm.
French Foreign Minister Dominiqe de Villepin said his country would accept a "tight" timetable for disarmament but not an ultimatum that could automatically trigger war -- as Washington seeks. Still, he acknowledged war was becoming inevitable. "It is difficult to imagine what could stop this machine," he told France 2 television.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on Saturday marched through Saddam Hussein's hometown and other Iraqi cities Saturday in government-organized demonstrations, condemning the United States and vowing to fight to the death against American and British invaders.
On Monday, Blix is to present the Security Council with his plans for upcoming inspections. He has said recently that Baghdad is showing more "proactive" cooperation with inspectors, but the United States and its allies insist that Saddam is deceiving the inspectors .
Blix and 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 have pressed the Iraqis for greater cooperation with their mission to verify that the country is rid of nuclear, biological and nuclear weapons. Iraq says it no longer has such weapons.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said Saddam's science adviser, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi -- the point man on disarmament -- had 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 invitation letter said Iraq has 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 in Iraq, according to the ministry statement. It gave no details.
The inspectors are demanding Iraq address a number of unanswered disarmament questions -- particularly that it account for stocks of anthrax and VX nerve gas that Iraq claims to have destroyed in the early 1990s without offering documentation.
Blix received a 25-page letter from Iraq late Friday on VX nerve agent. Parts of the letter in Arabic will have to translated and studied to determine what is new, and if so, whether it helps to resolve any of the outstanding issues, said Blix's spokesman, Ewen Buchanan.
Iraq had promised a letter on anthrax as well, but Buchanan made no mention of that.
In another bid to show cooperation, Iraqi authorities gave inspectors the names of 183 more scientists involved in Iraqi chemical weapons programs, U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said Saturday.
That brings the total number of names submitted by Baghdad to 315. The United Nations has requested interviews with 325 people, hoping to uncover information about clandestine weapons programs or get details on undocumented weapons destruction.
In Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, thousands of people including Baath Party officers armed with Kalashnikovs and men in Arab dress, carried portraits of the Iraqi leader and chanted "We love Saddam," as they filed past a local dignitaries in a reviewing stand.
"We seek one of two things: victory or martyrdom," said one demonstrator, Abdullah Rasheed al-Haza'a, in the town 100 miles north of Baghdad -- also the birthplace of Saladin, the fabled Muslim general who fought the Crusades in the 12th century.
If war breaks out, the Iraqi army and militias loyal to Saddam are widely expected to put up a stiff fight in defense of Tikrit, because of its symbolic significance as Saddam's hometown. Saddam was born in the village of al-Uja about 6 miles south of Tikrit.
But on Saturday, there was no sign of any unusual military activity inside the city.
In the capital, Baghdad, thousands marched down a wide boulevard in the eastern part of the city, banging drums, blowing on trumpets and dancing in a demonstration that looked more like a carnival than a march. Similar protests were held Karbala, Najaf and Babil.
Saddam on Saturday held the latest of his almost daily meetings with army commanders, the official Iraqi News Agency said. Though he said the United States would violate humanitarian laws, he told commanders to remember "the laws that God wants us to obey, whether they are to do with friends or enemies, and whether it is a time of war or peace."
One commander suggested that Iraq would treat American prisoners of war humanely in the event of war -- a point on which Saddam agreed, the agency reported.
Eight U.S. warships, meanwhile, crossed the Mediterranean and entered the Red Sea on Saturday to join the military buildup in the Middle East. Some 300,000 U.S. and British troops already are in the Gulf area.
U.N. weapons inspectors, meanwhile, oversaw the destruction of three banned Iraqi missiles at a military site north of Baghdad, according to U.N. spokesman Ueki. A missile launcher was also destroyed, he added. The Iraqis have now crushed 68 Al Samoud 2 missiles since the United Nations ordered their destruction because it was found to have a range beyond the 93 miles allowed by U.N. resolutions.
The inspectors also visited Al-Qa Qa complex south of Baghdad which produces chemical and explosives in addition to a medicine warehouse.
Key Iraq developments:
At the United Nations, officials said diplomatic efforts were dead and the only question left was whether President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar would decide to abandon their resolution giving Saddam a Monday deadline to prove Iraq is disarming or face war -- or put it to a vote and face certain defeat.
Anti-war protesters planned large demonstrations in Washington and around the world. About 10,000 marched in Tokyo and 4,000 in Christchurch and Dunedin, New Zealand. Hundreds more demonstrated in Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
A new poll found that 47 percent of Americans say they support military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq without the support of the Security Council; 37 percent said the United States should go to war only with full support of the Security Council; 13 percent said the United States should not take military action.