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Iraq shows no signs of backing off

Published: November 17, 1997 12:00 AM

Lawmakers dressed in Western suits and flowing Arab gowns gathered in front of the azure-domed National Parliament building to stage the one-hour protest and show support for Saddam.

Such staged demonstrations by officials and citizens _ long common in Iraq _ have increased since Saddam provoked the standoff by ordering the expulsion of American members of the U.N. arms inspection team on Oct. 29.

The six Americans were kicked out Thursday and the remaining 68 other inspectors also were withdrawn in protest amid condemnation by the U.N. Security Council and a U.S. threat of a possible military strike in retaliation.

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But the Iraqis remain defiant.

After sketching his protest on the stone sidewalk with a piece of chalk _ handed around in a box to all legislators _ Parliament Speaker Saadoun Hammadi urged all Iraqi families to write the slogan in front of their homes.

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Today's action by the lawmakers came a day after Saddam met with his Cabinet and said he hoped an escalation of the conflict could be averted.

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Roger Kaplan said that U-2 flights would resume over Iraq, which has threatened to shoot down the U.S. reconnaissance planes flying for the United Nations.

"All I can say right now is that we have entered the window, November 16-23, when we may conduct U-2 flights," Kaplan said late Sunday. "However, I have no information that we conducted any flights today."

Saddam has praised other Arab countries for opposing the use of military action in the crisis. He did not, however, signal any willingness to compromise on the controversy over American inspectors.

"Iraq does not seek conflict with the United States and if there is a solution to this crisis ... we would be happy," he said in a statement carried by the Iraqi News Agency.

Kuwait and Syria, which supported strikes against Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said they were opposed to the use of force in the current standoff. The impasse began two-and-a-half weeks ago when Iraq decided to expel U.S. weapons inspectors working for the United Nations.

Iraq again offered to defuse the standoff if the U.N. inspection team were reorganized.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a Paris newspaper that the crisis could end if the teams included fewer Americans and better represented the makeup of the U.N. Security Council.

The proposal was rejected by the United States when it was first offered a week ago. Washington reiterated its stance Sunday, saying Iraq was in no position to dictate the composition of the team.

The United States has pressed forward with its military buildup, sending the aircraft carrier USS George Washington through the Suez Canal toward the Persian Gulf on Sunday.

Though several Arab states have joined Kuwait and Syria in opposing a military strike against Iraq, President Clinton's top security adviser said the White House is confident the Arabs won't stand in the way of any U.S. action.

Sandy Berger said Arab nations understand the threat posed by Saddam.

Kuwait, though usually unsparing in its criticism of Iraq, which invaded the emirate in 1990, has indicated opposition to force this time around.

"We do not support any military action against Iraq," said Kuwait's foreign minister, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass told al-Hayat, a London-based newspaper: "All Arab countries are in solidarity with Iraq."

At the end of the 1991 war, the United Nations ordered Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction and sent in a multinational team of inspectors to monitor Iraqi compliance.

Last month, Iraq asserted that the American inspectors were spies intent on prolonging U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the Kuwait invasion. Though the Security Council warned of consequences if Iraq expelled the monitors, Iraq went ahead with the move Thursday.

Richard Butler, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, warned in an interview with CNN that Iraq could resume building biological weapons within a week.

In Baghdad today, U.N. monitors overseeing the distribution of food under an oil-for-food program resumed operations, U.N. spokesman Eric Falt said. The program allows Iraq to sell oil worth $2 billion every six months under U.N. supervision to buy humanitarian goods.

The monitoring was halted because of a fuel shortage following nationwide rationing, but the humanitarian program has now been given priority at gas stations, Falt said.

The United States and Britain worked to rally support for strong action against Saddam.

In a conversation with Clinton, Russia's Boris Yeltsin said his country would do what it could to end the Iraqi crisis peacefully.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saddam "is not a man that is going to listen to any language of reason or sweetness unless the person using it is also carrying a big stick."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cut short a visit to Qatar and left for neighboring Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to discuss the standoff.

In Qatar, Albright lashed out at Baghdad for refusing to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction.

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