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Since 1st March, 1999
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EU takes bold step to avert war in Iraq

Athens/Baghdad, Jan. 8 (Reuters): The EU took its boldest step to avert war in Iraq today, saying it would send a mission to seven Arab nations in February soon after UN arms experts make a key report.

EU president Greece said its foreign minister, George Papandreou, would go to “moderate” Arab states to encourage them to play a greater role in mediating between Iraq and the US and get Baghdad to adhere to UN weapons inspections.

Washington accuses Baghdad of possessing weapons of mass destruction, an allegation Iraq denies.

All Arab countries have said they oppose a war against Iraq, though some say they might cooperate with action authorised by the UN Security Council.

“On the trip we want to see if we can have a positive development on Iraq,” Papandreou told Reuters Television. He said the EU wanted to get across that the crisis could be resolved only by Iraq respecting UN resolutions.

“The mission will visit seven moderate Arab governments in early February to mediate in averting a conflict in Iraq,” a Greek foreign ministry official said. “All hope for a peaceful settlement of the Iraq issue has not been exhausted,” he said. “The EU will encourage peace initiatives up until the last minute.”

A foreign ministry official said the trip was likely to be in early or mid-February and include Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well as meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials. There would be about seven stops in all on the tour.

If it does come to war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein conceded today that Baghdad was at a disadvantage in terms of air power, but said his country would be on level terms in any ground battles.

The biggest problem, he said, came down to bread and water. “I don’t find any difficulties in the battle unless the fighter says that he has no bread or no water to drink,” he was quoted by Iraqi television as telling militia fighters.

“Here I have to see if he can depend on his brothers in surrounding villages to get from them a loaf of bread to continue fighting among them. This is the only thing that I find difficult...”

It was not clear whether the planned timing of the EU mission suggested Athens had any information that there would be no US military action against Baghdad before early February.

A report scheduled for January 27 to the UN Security Council by the inspectors who have been searching for alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is widely regarded as key to determining the timing of any US-led strike.

Egypt, one of the most influential Arab countries, warned that “any strike on Iraq would mean more terrorism in the region, not to speak of the chaos that will spread in the region, in addition to the fact that a strike will not have the desired result”.

“If (the US) wants to strike tomorrow, no one can do anything to stop it,” Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher was quoted as saying by the semi-official weekly al-Mussawar.

Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz accused the US and Britain of “imperialist motives” as the Western countries built up their military presence in the Gulf region.

Aziz said that despite the fact that“the inspectors are here and they are doing their job and Iraq is fully cooperating with them, the preparation for war is going on”.

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