Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was heading to New York on Saturday night _ after receiving a U.S. visa _ to make his case in front of the U.N. Security Council, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency reported from Baghdad.
"We are in a dark tunnel. There is no end in sight. There will be no retreat by Iraq unless changes are made," Aziz told Cable News Network in the Iraqi capital.
He said anti-aircraft sites in Iraq were in a "standby mode" and warned that if U.S. pilots resume U.N. surveillance flights over Iraq as scheduled on Monday, they would be fired upon.
The deputy prime minister also said Iraq would go ahead with its threat to expel U.S. arms monitors if the Security Council does not take action on its demands. It was not known when those talks would take place.
For a sixth straight day, Iraq barred U.N. teams from inspecting weapons sites Saturday because they included American monitors.
Thousands of Iraqis, meanwhile, thronged a government-staged rally in the capital, proclaiming their support for President Saddam Hussein and their animosity toward the United States with chants of "Down, down America!"
"We see victory in the eyes of our president," Latif Nassayf Jassim, a member of Saddam's ruling council, told the 3,000 demonstrators.
Iraq has accused the American inspectors of being spies, and originally vowed to expel them by Nov. 5. But at the last minute, the government agreed to put off a decision until after a U.N. mediating team concluded its mission in Baghdad. The team left Baghdad on Friday.
The American weapons inspectors work for the U.N. Special Commission that is charged with ensuring that Iraq eliminates its weapons of mass destruction. Iraq must complete that process before the United Nations will lift sanctions imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Seven of the 40 arms monitors currently in Baghdad are Americans.
MENA quoted a senior diplomatic source in Baghdad as saying that Iraq sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanding "a balancing of the number of inspectors and special commission officials to better reflect the permanent members of the Security Council."
It was unclear if by "balancing" the Iraqis meant they were prepared to allow U.S. inspectors in Baghdad, albeit in smaller numbers, or if they wanted the Americans to be replaced by a higher representation of the council's other permanent member nations.
Aside from the United States, the permanent members are Britain, France, Russia and China. Most of the U.N. arms inspectors are American and European, although Russian missile experts have been involved.
The letter from Iraq also repeated Iraq's demand that American U-2 reconnaissance planes, which fly surveillance flights for the U.N. commission, be replaced by aircraft "from any other neutral side," MENA reported.
Seven years of U.N. sanctions have left Iraqis impoverished. Iraq is barred from selling oil, its economic mainstay, and flights in and out of the country are blocked.
Baghdad claims that the United States, because of its antipathy toward Iraq, is preventing the U.N. commission from certifying that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction, thus leaving the sanctions in place indefinitely.
At Saturday's demonstration, Ali Mabuhd, a 19-year-old student, said he had come "to denounce the American aggression against Iraq and the American domination of ... the United Nations."
Another protester, Bahra Ali, a teacher, said "the U.N. should be a U.N. and not the U.S."
While Aziz said Friday that Iraq had fulfilled its obligation to get rid of its banned weapons, the U.N. special commission has repeatedly accused Baghdad of withholding information.