| US military vehicles take part in exercises in the Kuwaiti desert near the eastern border with Iraq. (AP/PTI)
Baghdad, Dec. 21 (Reuters): UN arms inspectors hunted for banned weapons in Iraq today, but expectations of war grew across West Asia and the Gulf regions, stoked by sombre messages coming from Washington and London.
Iraqi officials said UN weapons experts had pounced on 10 sites across the country, including an oil refinery south of Baghdad and a communications centre near the Iranian border.
Washington and London, meanwhile, signalled that the prospect of a ground and air war to be fought to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in early 2003 was now increasingly likely.
President George W. Bush cancelled a trip to Africa at a few weeks’ notice while the US military forged ahead with a build-up that could have more than 100,000 troops in the Gulf region in January or February.
In London, in a Christmas message broadcast to British armed forces yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair told troops to prepare for war.
As fears of war rose, sirens rang out for the first time in a decade in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom tested its emergency warning system, while in Qatar delegates from Gulf Cooperation Council states held a meeting to set aside regional differences amid fears of war on Iraq.
At the meeting, Qatar urged Iraq to implement UN resolutions and called on UN weapons inspectors to remain objective. Iraq shares borders with two members of the council and an attack on Baghdad could destabilise the oil-rich region.
In Vatican City, Pope John Paul called for peace, expressing despair at the growing number of conflicts in the world. The face of Christ was marked by pain because of it and the future was bathed in blood. War and terrorism were creating increasing divisions in the world, he said.
In Baghdad, Saddam met his top advisers, according to the official news agency INA, which said they had discussed regional and international developments. Iraq also promised to return another batch of Kuwaiti property, in an effort to improve ties with its Gulf War foe.
Iraqi newspapers taunted the US and Britain, with the daily owned by Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, likening US and British leaders to ruthless Mongol conquerors. But a key Iraqi opposition leader said today he believed a US-led attack would happen very soon.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, said his forces were ready for action right away if called upon to fight a war in Iraq. He said US forces were capable of fighting wars simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are now 60,000 US troops in the Gulf and some 50,000 US ground troops were being told this week to get ready to move to the Gulf, US officials said.
According to a German government source, the US has asked Germany to guard US bases in the country at the end of January to allow more troops to be moved to the Gulf.
Japan may also send troops to Iraq to help scrap any chemical and biological weapons following a possible attack on that country, Japanese media said. The report came a day after Bush said Iraq’s arms declaration was “not encouraging” for finding a peaceful solution to the standoff.
US officials yesterday offered more data to UN weapons inspectors after Hans Blix, who heads the team of UN inspectors, had urged Washington and London to share intelligence. However, there was no indication today that the data had been provided. Officials said the information would involve fewer than six sites where US intelligence believed Iraq has “suspicious chemical weapons or elements of production”.
The UN Security Council asked the arms inspectors to provide a detailed assessment of Iraq’s arms declaration on January 9, in another effort to evaluate Baghdad’s claim it no longer has weapons of mass destruction, diplomats said.