Baghdad, Feb. 28 (Reuters): Iraq said today it would obey UN orders to destroy its ballistic missiles and could start doing so tomorrow, but the US and allies accused Baghdad of playing games over disarmament.
The US intensified its military build-up in the Gulf region, and President George W. Bush said Iraq would never give up its weapons voluntarily and would have to be disarmed by force.
In Baghdad, Iraqi sources said the government had told chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix it would obey his order to destroy its al Samoud 2 ballistic missiles and could start dismantling them tomorrow — the deadline he had set.
UN inspectors in Baghdad said they would hold technical talks with Iraq today, after which the destruction of the missiles could begin.
The UN says the missiles are illegal because their 150 km range exceeds limits set in 1991 UN resolutions.
Blix, however, in a crucial report to the UN Security Council, criticised Iraq for giving a “very limited” response to its disarmament obligations.
In a leaked draft of his report, Blix said the results of three months of inspections had been problematic. “Iraq could have made greater efforts to find any remaining proscribed items or provide credible evidence showing the absence of such items,” he wrote. “The results in terms of disarmament have been very limited so far.”
Security Council members argued bitterly on whether to approve a war on Iraq, with veto-wielding permanent members deeply divided and smaller nations — under mounting pressure from both sides — urging them to seek unity.
Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, visiting Beijing, said Moscow would not support any resolution that opened the way for the use of force in Iraq and would use its veto “if necessary, in the interest of international stability.”
Egypt, due to host an Arab League summit on Iraq, welcomed the Iraqi decision to destroy its missiles but urged Baghdad to do more to avoid a US-led war.
But Bush told the newspaper USA Today: “My attitude about (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein is that, if he had any intention of disarming, he would have disarmed.”
“We will disarm him now,” he declared.
“We’re still a battlefield,” said Bush, speaking of his view that Saddam is a threat to the US and the world. “Part of that war is dealing with a dictator who can serve as an arsenal and/or training ground for terrorist networks.”
US Navy officials said earlier that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz would head for the Gulf region on Monday, joining five other US carriers and their battle groups already in the Gulf and the Mediterranean.
The Pentagon said several long-range, radar-evading B-2 stealth bombers were expected soon to head for the region, where the US already has hundreds of Air Force and Navy planes and some 200,000 ground troops ready for war.
In Madrid, British Prime Minister Tony Blair dismissed Iraq’s pledge to begin dismantling its missiles. “The moment I heard earlier in the week that Saddam Hussein was saying he would not destroy the missiles was the moment I knew that later in the week he would announce, just before Dr Blix reported, that he would indeed destroy these missiles,” Blair said.