U.N chief in Baghdad as war talk escalates

Associated Press Published:

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ With the U.S. military offshore and poised to attack Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan began a final campaign Friday to end the crisis over U.N. weapons inspections without bloodshed. He called his peace mission a "sacred duty."

Events outside Iraq added to the urgency. Washington advised the families of American diplomats to leave neighboring Kuwait and Israel and sent 750 more troops to Kuwait to bolster that country's defense.

Despite the growing momentum, Annan said he was "reasonably optimistic" he could pull the Persian Gulf back from the brink of war.

"I hope I will leave Baghdad with a package acceptable to all," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, greeting Annan at Saddam International Airport in an olive-green uniform, said he shared Annan's optimism. He pledged "constructive discussion."

Annan's mission, expected to last until Monday, is seen as a last effort to resolve the four-month crisis over U.N. inspections of sites Iraq considers sensitive, such as President Saddam Hussein's presidential compounds.

A Swedish U.N. official who had been appointed by Annan to map the compounds said Friday that his team, which included two U.N. weapons inspectors, toured eight of Saddam's presidential palaces.

Washington has threatened to attack should diplomacy fail to open the sites to inspectors who are monitoring the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Backing up its threat, the United States has built its forces in the region to 25,000 servicemen and women in recent weeks, posting them at Gulf bases and aboard two aircraft carriers. In addition, over the next few days, 3,000 ground troops are to take up defensive positions in Kuwait.

The military build-up has sparked protests across the Arab world, where there is widespread sympathy for Iraqis suffering under seven years of U.N. sanctions.

Many Arabs consider Israel a bigger threat and see a double standard in Washington's firmness with Baghdad and its reluctance to pressure Israel in the peace process.

In Jordan, a march in support of Saddam turned violent, with protesters setting fire to cars, breaking shop windows and firing upon police with pistols and machine guns. Police killed at least one protester.

In Israel, hundreds of Israeli-Arabs protested the threatened U.S. strike _ the first such show of opposition from them. Palestinians held more in days of chaotic protests in the West Bank.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials gave Annan what U.N. officials called an unusually warm welcome. He was allowed to land at the international airport _ rarely used now, because of U.N. sanctions _ and representatives of Iraq's protocol office jostled with diplomats, U.N. workers and camera crews on the tarmac.

Annan and Aziz walked into a small VIP building, emerging after a few minutes to make statements before the cameras, then talked again later at the guest house where Annan is staying, on the bank of the Tigris River.

There was no word on any progress from their talks Friday. More meetings were scheduled Saturday, including a likely one with Saddam.

It was part of what Annan called "a sacred duty ... in search for a peaceful solution."

Earlier, in Paris, Annan said he was not carrying any ultimatum but "certain proposals" that he hoped Saddam and the Iraqi leadership would accept to avoid a military strike.

Al-Hayat, a respected Arabic newspaper based in London, quoted Western diplomats as saying that Annan would ask Saddam to pledge "in writing" not to hamper the work of the inspection teams.

Hours before he arrived, an Iraqi government cleric cautioned that Annan should not present a peace formula so unacceptable that it gives the United States an excuse to strike Iraq.

"We need words that will meet all our demands," a leading government cleric, Sheik Abdul Latif Humaim, said in a nationally televised sermon following Friday prayers.

Humaim said Iraq will seek peace if the other side has peaceful intentions. But if war is inevitable, the sheik said: "You Iraqis be prepared for armed resistance."

The United States says it reserves the right to reject any deal Annan makes and to attack Iraq in a bid to destroy its suspected arsenal of biological and chemical weapons.

Ordinary Iraqis fear that air strikes are imminent. Many have begun stocking up on oil lamps and candles in anticipation of electricity blackouts.

The Swedish U.N. official, Staffan de Mistura, said his team took measurements and photos of the presidential compounds, and used Iraqi and U.N. helicopters to fly over six to take aerial shots.

Of the palaces at the heart of the dispute, three of the compounds are in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, three near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, one in the northern town of Mosul and one in the southern city of Basra, said de Mistura.

He said his team entered more than 10 percent of the buildings on the sites _ which he said covered 12.6 square miles _ but refused to say exactly how many structures the sites contained. His team included two inspectors, but he stopped short of calling the visits an inspection.

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