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Saddam says Iraq ready, calls UN men spies

Baghdad, Jan. 6 (Reuters): A defiant Iraqi President Saddam Hussein today declared his country ready for war and issued his first public criticism of UN weapons inspectors, accusing them of spying.

In a 25-minute televised Army Day message, Saddam dismissed US threats to disarm Iraq as “clamour, commotion and hysteria” to divert attention from US domestic and foreign policy failures, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

“As we monitor the hiss of snakes and bark of dogs accompanied by continued aggression in the north and south of the country, we act with the confidence of the assured whose actions are not hurried or confused,” he said. “Here, we have prepared for everything.”

Britain, Washington’s staunchest ally on Iraq, however said war with Baghdad was far from a foregone conclusion and less likely than many commentators implied.

“There has been so much talk in the newspapers about war, suggestions that the chance of war are 100 per cent, that it’s important to try and correct that impression,” British foreign secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio. “What is important for people to understand is that war is not inevitable.”

The prospect of conflict in the Gulf kept world markets on edge. Safe haven gold briefly hit its highest level in six years, oil hovered near a two-year peak and the dollar dipped.

As tens of thousands of troops massed in the Gulf and both sides dug in for possible confrontation, UN inspectors once again fanned out today to verify Iraq’s claim it has no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

One day after searching a record 16 locations, they visited four sites, including a pesticide factory thought to have been linked to VX gas and Iraq’s main nuclear programme facility.

Iraq has cooperated but some officials have rebuked inspectors for aggressive and intrusive methods.

During an address commemorating the founding of the Iraqi army in 1921, Saddam issued his first public criticism of the UN teams. He said rather than searching for weapons of mass destruction, the inspectors were instead compiling lists of Iraqi scientists, asking workers misleading questions, and gathering information about “legitimate military production... These things, or most of them, are pure intelligence work.”

Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei are scheduled to present an interim report on inspections to the Security Council on Thursday, with a comprehensive report due on January 27.

Any indication Iraq has concealed weapons could trigger a US-led war to disarm the country and oust its President.

Hungary’s defence ministry said a first group of US military personnel had arrived at Taszar air base to prepare a training camp for up to 3,000 Iraqi exiles who would act as intepreters and guides during a war and serve in a post-Saddam administration.

The New York Times reported today that the White House’s plans for a post-war Iraq included a US military presence there for at least 18 months and a civilian administrator.

Citing administration officials, the paper said the plan also called for military trials of the most senior Iraqi leaders and a takeover of Iraq’s oil fields to pay for reconstruction.

Turkish and Jordanian officials met in Amman to discuss the impact of a war on their countries, and the possible domestic fallout if they are seen as supporting Washington.

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