Iraq preparing for U.S. attack

Associated Press Published:

>Warnings from Iraqi leaders fed the anxiety, along with the American

decision to send the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Gulf

to back up a large military force that already includes one carrier.

People gathered in offices, cafes and on street corners to exchange views

on the crisis. Others filled markets or waited for hours outside gas stations

after the rations were announced.

"We have had enough of this. We are fed up," said Salem Hamdan,

sitting in his car, waiting to fill up. Private cars are limited to a four-day

quota of 10 1/2 gallons.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said moving the George

Washington _ and Britain's decision to send its carrier, HMS Invincible,

closer to the region _ could only be intended as a warning to Iraq.

"This is a muscle flex. It is within the preparation to launch a

new aggression against Iraq," he said at a news conference in Baghdad

broadcast by CNN.

He denied, however, that Iraq was on a war footing, saying steps such

as the gasoline rationing introduced Saturday were a precaution.

"We think it's one of the main targets of the American aggressors,

that they will bombard oil refineries and oil storage tanks," he said.

Al-Sahhaf said Iraq still wanted a diplomatic solution to the crisis,

which began Oct. 29 with Iraq's decision to expel the American weapons inspectors,

whom it claims are spies intent on prolonging the harsh U.N. economic sanctions

imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

U.N. officials refused to remove the Americans from the multi-national

teams, which monitor Iraqi compliance with 1991 U.N. orders to destroy all

weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council warned of consequences

if Iraq threw them out of the country, but they were kicked out Thursday,

deepening fears here of a military strike.

During his news conference, al-Sahhaf said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq

Aziz was on a diplomatic mission to gather support for Iraq's position from

Egypt and other Arab countries.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also was engaged in Arab world

diplomacy, making last-minute plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain

on Sunday. The stops come at a time of a continuing U.S. military buildup

in the gulf region.

Most Arab states have opposed the use of military force against Iraq,

but they also had urged Baghdad not to expel the American arms inspectors.

State television added to Iraqis' fears, using Saddam Hussein's phrase

for the 1991 Persian Gulf War in warning that "a bright new chapter

in ... the eternal mother of battles" was approaching.

Journalists taken by government officials to one of President Saddam

Hussein's palaces in Baghdad found a mood of defiance on Saturday. There,

more than 1,500 people had gathered to act as human shields against an attack.

Barricades of sand bags were seen around the palace.

"We are ready to die so that Abu Odai remains safe," the people

chanted, using Saddam's nickname of "Father of Odai," his oldest

son.

Jabar Faris, a university student, said an American attack would be met

with resistance.

"We are peaceful people ... but if the Americans want to destroy

us, then we have no other option but to fight _ and we will fight,"

he said.

At a celebration for the anniversary of Baghdad's founding in the 8th

century, Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan told about 5,000 people that

Iraq was not frightened.

"The Americans' and Zionists' threats, in which they warn of using

their cowardly weapons ... against Iraq, do not terrify us," he said,

referring to Israel's warning Friday for Iraq not to fire on the Jewish

state.

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