March 18, 2003
Iraq's leadership today rejected the U.S. ultimatum that Saddam Hussein and his sons leave Iraq or face war, and the United Nations pulled its weapons inspection staff out of the country as battle appeared inevitable. A defiant Saddam appeared tonight on Iraqi television in military uniform, in what appeared to signal his role as defender of the nation. Saddam last appeared in a military uniform after the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraqi television and state radio called on Iraqis to demonstrate across the country to show their support for Saddam. Al-Shabab television, an Iraqi station owned by Saddam's son Odai, said the decision to defy President Bush's ultimatum was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council --; Iraq's highest executive body --; and the leadership of the ruling Baath party. Saddam chaired the session. A statement read by the announcer said the meeting condemned the ultimatum Bush issued in Washington on Monday night.
"Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv," it said. "The pathetic Bush was hoping ... to achieve his evil targets without a fight through that declaration (the ultimatum) which reflects a state of isolation and defeat from which he and his pathetic allies are suffering from," the statement from the meeting said. Al-Shabab later reported that Saddam chaired a strategy meeting that brought together his son Qusai, who heads the elite Republican Guard, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the chief-of-staff of the armed forces and the commanders of the air force and air defense. The announcer said the meeting reviewed war plans and military readiness. Soon after broadcast stations called for mass demonstrations, about 5,000 demonstrators gathered at the Iraqi capital's Al-Mansour area. Many were armed and wore the olive-green uniform of Saddam's Baath party.
Waving portraits of the Iraqi leader, the demonstrators chanted, "We sacrifice ourselves for you Saddam, with our blood and souls!" They carried banners that read, "Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam." Smaller demonstrations took place elsewhere in Baghdad, but there were no immediate reports of demonstrations elsewhere in Iraq. In Baghdad, meanwhile, people mobbed bakeries and gas stations in a frantic rush for supplies. The dinar, Iraq's currency, also lost ground against the U.S. dollar, slumping to about 2,800 to the dollar, compared to 2,600 a week ago. At Saddam International Airport, hundreds of passengers snatched up tickets to Jordan and Syria --; the only destinations available today. The diplomatic exodus continued, with ambassadors from Greece and France taking the overland road to Jordan. Diplomats from China, Germany and the Czech Republic left earlier in the week.
Odai Hussein had already issued his own rejection of the U.S. ultimatum in a statement distributed by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. He said Bush was "unstable" and that the U.S. leader "should give up power in America with his family." He also warned that a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States. There was no immediate word from Odai's younger brother Qusai, now widely thought to be Saddam's right-hand man and in charge of Saddam's personal protection.
U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq earlier today, the latest in a steady stream of foreigners to abandon Iraq in recent days. They were ordered out Monday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the United States indicated war was near. A plane carrying the inspectors took off from Saddam International Airport at about 10:25 a.m. and landed about 90 minutes later in Larnaca, Cyprus, where the inspectors have a rear base. U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said 56 inspectors were on board, as well as support staff. Reporters at the Baghdad airport saw about 80 people boarding buses for the plane at the end of the tarmac. U.N. officials said Monday about 150 inspectors, support staff, humanitarian workers and U.N. observers would be evacuated from Iraq.
In a speech Monday night, after failing to secure U.N. authorization to use force to disarm Iraq, Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to step down or face war. "The tyrant will soon be gone," Bush said in a televised address. It wasn't clear if the ultimatum was widely seen in Iraq, where information is tightly controlled and most Iraqis are barred from owning satellite dishes.
Top military officers are likely to be among the minority of privileged Iraqis with access to satellite TV and may have seen it. Lower-ranking officers may have been able to hear the speech on radio stations like the BBC and Washington's Radio Sawa, which are clandestinely listened to in the country.
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