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Bush, Iraq raise stakes in high-risk standoff

United Nations, Sept 13 (Reuters): Iraq flatly rejected US President George W. Bush’s demand for a swift and unconditional return of UN arms inspectors today, raising the stakes in their high-risk confrontation and bringing closer the spectre of a second Gulf War.

Bush, who did not threaten an attack on Iraq but clearly implied it in his speech yesterday to the UN General Assembly, took a blunter approach less than 24 hours later, saying he was “highly doubtful” that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would meet conditions for averting military action.

Baghdad lived up to his expectations. “We do not accept President Bush’s conditions,” Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz told the Dubai-based Arab satellite television station MBC in an interview broadcast today.

Oil prices leapt with traders saying Aziz’s rebuttal raised the likelihood of a US attack on Iraq. The market fears conflict could spread into other countries in the Gulf region, which pumps a quarter of global oil supply.

World financiers were reaching for their calculators and computer models to work out the implications of a second Gulf War. A source in Italy said G7 finance ministers look set to join a chorus of voices warning about the possible impact of a war when they meet later this month.

With US secretary of state Colin Powell consulting his counterparts on the UN Security Council, Bush made clear he wanted quick movement on a tough new resolution requiring Iraq to disarm, urging UN action in “days and weeks”.

Aziz raised the stakes in the ballooning crisis. “The return of inspectors without conditions will not solve the problem ... because we have had a bad experience with them,” Aziz said. “Is it clever to repeat an experience that failed and did not prevent aggression'”

The White House said that Aziz’s rejection meant that Iraq had “something to hide.”

UN weapons inspectors responsible for accounting for Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic weapons were pulled out of Iraq in December 1998 on the eve of US-British bombing raids and have not been permitted to return.

“Is the great diplomacy they are talking about to delay the US aggression four or five months and then to take place after the inspectors had returned',” Aziz asked.

Bush told the UN General Assembly yesterday that unspecified action against Saddam would be inevitable unless the UN forced Baghdad to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Today, the President added he was not optimistic about getting results.

“I am highly doubtful that he’ll meet our demands,” Bush said as he met African leaders on the sidelines of the General Assembly. “I hope he does, but I’m highly doubtful. The reason I’m doubtful is he’s had 11 years to meet the demands, and for 11 long years he has basically told the United Nations and the world he doesn’t care.”

Jack Straw, foreign secretary of Britain, a staunch US ally, said today that Iraq would only agree to the return of UN weapons inspectors if it is “written on their eyeballs” that the alternative is the use of force.

There was an urgency in Bush’s tone on the need for a tough new resolution requiring Iraq to disarm. “We expect quick resolution to the issue,” he said.

“There will be deadlines within the resolution,” he said, adding: “We’re talking days and weeks, not months and years.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush’s comments were not intended to mean that war was inevitable.

“The President wants to send the UN a helpful message that he wants them to be relevant, he wants them to come out with something strong and concrete around which the world can rally,” Fleischer said.

Bush turned to the United Nations under pressure from foreign leaders and members of Congress, in what many in Washington saw as a victory for Powell and his multilateral approach over some of the President’s more hard-line advisers.

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