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Ambassadors, journalists leave Iraq as war looms

©Associated Press
March 18, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The United Nations ordered its weapons inspectors out of Iraq Monday, widening the stream of diplomats and foreign journalists heading for the exits before any shooting starts.

Defiant to the end, Saddam Hussein gave no sign of heeding U.S. demands that he step down. He warned that American forces would find an Iraqi fighter ready to die for his country "behind every rock, tree and wall."

But he made a last-minute bid to avert war, admitting that Iraq had once possessed weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from Iran and Israel -- but insisting that it no longer had them.

"When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says," Hussein said.

His words were pushed aside, as President Bush gave him an ultimatum in a Monday night speech: Leave Iraq or face war.

Before the speech, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said Hussein wouldn't leave. "He will stay in place like a solid rock," he told Qatar television broadcaster Al-Jazeera in an interview Monday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that he was ordering all U.N. staff out of Iraq, including 156 inspectors and support staff, humanitarian workers and U.N. observers monitoring the Iraqi-Kuwait border.

U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said inspectors were expected to begin leaving on Tuesday. He denied that they were already checking out of their Baghdad hotel Monday night.

Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister, said that while U.N. inspectors were looking "for a white crow," an Arabic expression for something that does not exist, Annan's decision to pull them out was "regrettable."

Other foreigners were already leaving. Pakistan, Germany and the Czech Republic announced they were closing their embassies in Baghdad. India and China evacuated their ambassadors while Greece said it expected to have its embassy staff out within a few days. A Bahrain Foreign Ministry official said the country's diplomatic staff had left quietly over the weekend.

Britain also advised all of its citizens except diplomatic staff to leave neighboring Kuwait as soon as possible, citing a potential threat from Iraq. Finland issued a similar advisory to all its citizens in Kuwait.

The United States had already ordered all government dependents and nonessential staff out of Kuwait, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Monday, it suggested that Americans in Lebanon consider leaving.

Foreign journalists, including crews from ABC and NBC, were heading out of Baghdad for Jordan. China's official Xinhua news agency said six Chinese reporters also were leaving.

A week ago, there were 450 foreign journalists in Baghdad. Monday, there were 300, the Information Ministry said.

In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, residents streamed out of the city of Chamchamal, a mile from Iraqi forces, heading deeper into the relative safety of Kurdish territory protected by U.S.-British air patrols.

Still, U.N. weapons inspections continued Monday.

Iraq's Foreign Ministry said the inspectors visited six sites. According to Ueki, the U.N. spokesman, they supervised the destruction by the Iraqis of two more of Iraq's banned Al Samoud 2 missiles and five warheads. He also reported that an Iraqi biological scientist had been privately interviewed by the inspectors.

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