Baghdad, Jan. 2 (Reuters): More than 11,000 US troops prepared to head for the Gulf and Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister accused Washington today of planning to invade Iraq regardless of the verdict of UN weapons inspectors.
On the diplomatic front, an Iranian newspaper reported what it said was a US-Russian plan to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to hand over power and go to Moscow. The Russian foreign ministry declined to comment.
A group of Arab intellectuals said they planned to appeal to the Arab world to pressure Saddam to step down to avert a war.
US defence officials said the deployment of the desert-trained 3rd Infantry Division would be the first of a full combat division to the Gulf since the 1991 Gulf War.
Other units are also on notice to move and their arrival would double the nearly 60,000 US personnel already in the region. Military analysts say the US invasion plans are likely to involve as many as 250,000 troops.
The latest deployments make ever more concrete President George W. Bush’s threat to disarm Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction by force. Bush says he has made no decision on whether to attack Iraq, which was ordered by the UN Security Council in November to disarm or face serious consequences.
Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, accused Washington of planning to invade his country regardless of what UN arms inspectors turn up, as part of a plan to control the region’s oil supplies.
“They didn’t say: ‘Let us wait for a while for the result of the inspection and then let’s decide what to do’,” Aziz told several groups of European activists in Baghdad to show their opposition to war on Iraq.
“When they continue their preparations for the war of aggression, what does that mean' It doesn’t mean that they are genuinely afraid of an imaginary Iraqi threat. It means that they have an imperialist design,” he said in English.
“That design is to invade Iraq, to occupy Iraq and use the national resources of Iraq for the purposes of... the American capitalist regime,” he said.
“When America becomes stronger economically, when America takes over the whole oil of the region and puts it in its hands it is going to pressure politically and economically every country that needs oil,” Aziz said.
Oil prices leap
World oil prices opened the year with a three per cent leap today, mainly because a Venezuelan strike pushed US stocks close to a 26-year low. International benchmark Brent crude oil climbed 79 cents to $29.45 per barrel.
A UN spokesman said in Baghdad teams from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) drove today to six sites in central and northwest Iraq.
Among them was the former Ash Sharqat Uranium Enrichment Facility. The UN spokesman said the site was now a chemical plant producing nitric acid and ammonium nitrate.
“The inspectors did not find any prohibited activities or prohibited items in those 230 sites that have been visited till now,” said Hussam Mohammed Amin, the chief Iraqi official liaising with UN inspectors.
UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will probably visit Baghdad between January 18 and 20 before reporting on the inspections to the UN Security Council on January 27, UN sources in New York said.
In Tehran, the daily paper Entekhab said German foreign minister Joschka Fischer had told his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi that Washington and Moscow were considering a plan to persuade Saddam Hussein to leave power and go to Moscow. The German foreign ministry said the two ministers had spoken by telephone, but denied Fischer had said Washington was trying to topple Saddam without going to war.