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Monday is moment of truth: Bush

Azores, March 16 (Reuters): President George W. Bush said at an Iraq crisis summit that Monday was a “moment of truth for the world”.

“We concluded that tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world,” he told a news conference in the Azores joined by the leaders of Britain and Spain.

Asked if he meant the diplomatic window would close if by Monday the UN Security Council failed to pass a second resolution authorising war, he said: “That’s what I’m saying.”

“Tomorrow is the day we will determine whether diplomacy can work.” Bush, who has set as his goals the disarming of Iraq and a change of regime, said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could avert a war by leaving Iraq.

“We hope tomorrow the UN will do its job. If not, all of us need to step back and try to figure out how to make the UN work better,” Bush said.

In preparation for an imminent assault, Saddam Hussein divided Iraq into four military districts under his command. His foreign minister said Iraq was preparing as if war would start in an hour and had distributed food rations to last till the end of August.

Saddam Hussein said it was a “great lie” that Iraq still had banned weapons.

“Who appointed America the unjust judge of the world so that it can say if this country has a weapon of a certain range that it should destroy'” Saddam told a group of military officers.

“There is no question we are close to the end of the diplomatic efforts,” US Vice-President Dick Cheney said.

Bush flew in from the US for the crisis summit at an airbase on Portugal’s Azores islands in the Atlantic with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The trio met as hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough were fading.

UN arms inspectors were even forced to pull out five of their eight helicopters from Iraq today after insurers cancelled cover because of war risks.

Germany’s foreign ministry urged all nationals in Iraq to leave immediately and said it would close its Baghdad embassy as soon as they had gone. “Clearly, the President is going to have to make a very, very difficult and important decision in the next few days,” Cheney said.

He rejected calls, led by France, for UN weapons inspectors to get more time to check Iraq’s arsenals. Saddam says he has no banned chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. “It’s difficult for us to believe that 30 days or 60 more days are going to change anything,” Cheney said. “We’re approaching the point where further delay helps no one but Saddam Hussein.”

The US moved 13 more warships through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea from the Mediterranean. The redeployment would let them launch cruise missiles at Iraq without crossing Turkey or Syria, which have not allowed overflights.

In Vatican City, Pope John Paul made one of his strongest appeals for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, telling Baghdad it had an “urgent duty” to cooperate fully with the international community.

Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council ordered the four newly-established military districts to “take the necessary steps to repulse and destroy any foreign aggression”.

The President’s younger son Qusay was put in charge of Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town.

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