| Children take part in a parade in Baghdad on Friday to mark the 12th anniversary of the start of the 1991 Gulf war. (Reuters)
Baghdad, Jan. 17 (Reuters): A defiant Saddam Hussein rallied Iraqis on the 12th anniversary of the 1991 Gulf war today with a vow to rout US troops at the gates of Baghdad.
The Iraqi President said he had mobilised his army and drawn up a plan to counter any invasion by the tens of thousands of US soldiers, warplanes and ships now massing in the Gulf.
Saddam’s speech, marking the anniversary of the start of the Gulf war that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, came a day after UN inspectors in Iraq said they had found empty rocket warheads designed to carry chemical warfare agents.
UN weapons chief Hans Blix played down the significance of the find. “This discovery is interesting and obviously the warheads have to be destroyed... But it’s not something that’s so important because we’re talking about empty warheads,” he told a news conference in Paris.
Saddam urged Iraqis to be alert for a US strike.
“We have determined and planned to defeat the aggressors. We have mobilised our abilities, including those of the army, people and leadership,” Saddam said in a televised speech.
“Baghdad, its people and leadership, is determined to force the Mongols of our age to commit suicide at its gates,” he said, referring to the Mongol armies who sacked Baghdad, then a centre of learning, in 1258.
As the US continued its buildup of forces in the Gulf, French President Jacques Chirac warned that any unilateral action against Iraq would contravene international law. He said it was up to the UN Security Council to decide on the inspectors’ progress report, due to be presented on January 27.
“If one country or another were to take a measure that would not conform to (this), they would purely and simply be contravening international rules,” he said in Paris.
Blix, due in London as part of a diplomatic tour ending in Baghdad on Sunday, said he was not yet sure that Iraq had destroyed all its banned weapons.
“There is not yet confidence... that all the chemical and biological weapons and missiles are gone and that all the equipment is gone,” he said.
Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei have said they would confront Iraqi officials in talks on Sunday and Monday with big gaps in the 12,000-page weapons declaration Iraq submitted to the United Nations on December 7.
ElBaradei said Baghdad had to show it had no weapons of mass destruction. “That is the clear message we are sending to Baghdad next week: cooperate and there is a positive outcome for you, and if you do not, unfortunately the consequences will not be very pleasant.”
US officials have signalled that any failure by Baghdad to cooperate with the inspectors could trigger military action.
Blix and ElBaradei were in Paris to brief French President Jacques Chirac on their teams’ work in Iraq.
US and British officials were also cautious about the significance of the discovery, while Russia said the find underlined the effectiveness of the inspections. Weapons experts said the 122mm rocket casings found in ammunition bunkers were from a multiple-barrelled rocket launcher system, a battlefield artillery weapon that could not be considered a weapon of mass destruction. “It would make no sense to hide them in a place...where the inspectors are sure to look. For once the Iraqis are probably telling the truth,” Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said.
“It’s a good-luck find of comparatively minor importance, perhaps due to Iraqi incompetence, an oversight, or bad book-keeping,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Warwick University. On the diplomatic front, Turkey’s president said his country could only make a limited contribution to any US-led war on its southern neighbour. Ankara opposes a war on Iraq and has been slow to offer use of its bases requested by Washington.