Baghdad, Jan. 4 (Reuters): UN arms inspectors set up a new base in northern Iraq today to speed up the hunt for alleged banned weapons as more US and British troops prepared to join comrades already massed in the Gulf.
Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri accused the US of trying to destabilise Iraq by supporting Iraqi exiles whom he described as “mercenaries and terrorists”.
In a letter to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, Sabri said a US plan to train exiled Iraqis to take part in a post-Saddam Hussein administration was an aggression that broke international laws.
“Bush’s administration is supporting mercenaries and terrorists to destabilise the political situation and the social security in Iraq,” said the letter, published in Baghdad's press.
Washington has threatened war if Iraq does not give up alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Saddam denies having such armoury and says the UN inspections will expose American claims as lies.
Addressing thousands of cheering soldiers in his home state of Texas yesterday, President George W. Bush said a war against Iraq would be one of liberation, not conquest.
“Should Saddam seal his fate by refusing to disarm, by ignoring the opinion of the world, you'll be fighting not to conquer anybody but to liberate people,” he told the troops.
Defence officials said the Pentagon had ordered some units of the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to go to the Gulf.
The troops, together with more than 11,000 infantry soldiers based in Georgia, and specialists based in Germany will join nearly 60,000 US military personnel already in the region.
Washington’s staunchest ally Britain will send more than 20,000 troops and mobilise 7,000 reservists next week, the Daily Telegraph newspaper said today.
With the drums of war beating louder, a team of UN weapons inspectors travelled to the city of Mosul, 375 km north of Baghdad to set up a permanent regional office from where they would launch inspections in northern Iraq.
“This will help us expand and accelerate our inspections throughout the country, but particularly in the north,” UN inspectors’ spokesman Hiro Ueki said before leaving to Mosul with the team.
The inspectors must report their findings to the Security Council by January 27. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will make an interim report to the UN Security Council on Thursday.
The council passed a resolution in November demanding Iraq give a full account of its weapons programmes and cooperate with weapons inspectors, as required by resolutions stemming from the 1991 Gulf War, or face tough consequences.
Teams from the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited at least five sites today, including a brewery that produces the spirit arak.
Inspections are now in their sixth week but the experts have yet to disclose any evidence of banned weapons programmes.
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul flew to Syria today at the start of a tour of West Asian countries looking for ways to head off a war in neighbouring Iraq that he likened to a “Pandora's box”.
Nato member Turkey is expected to offer airspace and logistical support for the US. However Ankara has been dragging its feet over making a firm commitment, hoping to avoid war and the political and economic turmoil it may bring.
“Iraq is like a Pandora's box... This box should not be opened. Iraq should not be scattered because it would not be possible to put everyone back in again,” Gul said in an interview with Aksam newspaper before he left for Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
Gul said the chief responsibility for avoiding a war lay with Saddam.
But Baghdad says it has done all it can to accommodate inspectors who it says have found nothing incriminating after visiting at least 230 sites.