Washington/Baghdad, March 17 (Reuters): President George W. Bush will issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein later tonight that the Iraq President step down or face war, a White House spokesman said.
Bush will address the American people at 8 pm (6.30 am IST), following the failure by the UN Security Council to reach a consensus on how to deal with Iraq.
“He will say that to avoid military conflict, Saddam Hussein must leave the country,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “The next move will be up to Saddam Hussein.”
Iraq rejected any suggestion of Saddam stepping down, saying Bush should be the one to leave office.
“The only option (to secure peace) is the departure of the warmonger number one in the world, the failing President Bush who made his country a joke,” foreign minister Naji Sabri said.
Bush’s decision to give the speech came soon after the US-British-Spanish sponsors of a new UN disarmament draft resolution withdrew it in the face of certain defeat at the bitterly divided Security Council.
“The United Nations has failed to enforce its own demands that Iraq immediately disarm. As a result, the diplomatic window has been closed,” Fleischer said.
Bush was expected to give Saddam a brief window, perhaps 48 or 72 hours. Opinion polls showed Bush had solid support from US voters.
“The United Nations failed to act. The United Nations had its opportunity to enforce its own resolutions — to take an important role, an effective role, in the anti-proliferation efforts which are essential to keeping the peace. The United Nations showed it was not able to do so in the form of the Security Council,” Fleischer said.
In a last-minute bid to avert a US invasion, Saddam admitted that Iraq had in the past weapons of mass destruction but reiterated that it no longer had such weapons.
But he remained defiant in the face of Washington’s military threats, saying it would be defeated if it attacked Iraq.
“We are not collectors of weapons, but we had these weapons to defend ourselves when we were at war with Iran for eight years and when the Zionist entity was threatening us,” Iraq’s state television quoted him as telling Tunisian foreign minister Habib ben Yahia.
“Saddam Hussein cannot say that we don’t have banned weapons if we have such weapons. I confirm here that we do not have weapons of mass destruction.”
Several UN weapons inspectors checked out of their hotels in Baghdad, witnesses said, ahead of a possible evacuation.
Fighting could begin within hours of the UN inspectors leaving Iraq. UN officials said the weapons inspectors would tell the Council later today that their teams would leave Iraq within 24 hours. The last time UN weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq, in December 1998, Washington and London launched military strikes some 12 hours later.
German diplomats shut down their mission in Baghdad today and China has began evacuating its embassy. Several other embassies have already shut down.
Britain’s UN ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock, speaking on behalf of the US, Britain and Spain, blamed France for the decision to stop UN diplomacy, saying the French had made it clear they would veto any resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered the first domestic jolt over Iraq when former foreign secretary Robin Cook resigned.