St. Petersburg Times
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Leaders have their last say before bombs fall

By Times staff writers
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2003

On the eve of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, world leaders made their last attempts to avert it, and last comments before it.

In London on Wednesday, the prime minister for the first time advocated the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Israelis scrambled to prepare for attacks from Iraq.

In Muslim nations, as the president of Egypt blamed Baghdad for the impending war and warned of conflict's consequences, Turkey prepared for a vote on two contentious issues, and the meaning of Saudi Arabia's refusal to participate in an invasion became clearer.

Britain: Change regimes

Prime Minister Tony Blair, armed with Parliament's backing for war against Iraq, said Wednesday that he believes Saddam Hussein has to be removed from power.

"Now we are faced with the prospect of either leaving him in place without disarming him, or making sure that we remove him from power," Blair told the House of Commons a day after he won Parliament's support for military action on Iraq despite a revolt in his own Labor Party.

Blair had consistently argued that regime change was not an explicit policy goal but that it might be necessary to secure his overriding objective of depriving Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction.

"If the only means of achieving the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is the removal of the regime, then the removal of the regime has to be our objective," Blair said.

"It is important that we realize that we have come to this position because we have given every opportunity for Saddam voluntarily to disarm, that the will -- not just of this country but of the United Nations -- now has to be upheld."

Israel: Safer than in '91

Israel, the target of dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Wednesday filled its airwaves with assurances that the country was better prepared and much safer this time.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went so far as to predict that if there was a "1 percent risk" from Iraq, Israel's preparations could "provide the answer to 100 percent of the dangers."

Sharon's remarks, made in a special Cabinet meeting, came as Israel called up 7,500 more reservists, bringing a total of 12,000 army reservists deployed in anticipation of a U.S.-led assault on Iraq.

The Israeli air force was put on a heightened state of alert, one step below Israel's highest alert level, with jets patrolling around the clock, according to media reports.

Military and intelligence analysts said Israel, with enhanced satellite capabilities and faster, broader intelligence-sharing with the United States, has far surpassed its preparedness of a decade ago.

"One shouldn't be too cocky," said Uzi Arad, former Israeli director of intelligence. "But the statements reflect confidence based on what's happened here.... Technology and the passage of time in Israel has improved our capabilities. We'll see how that works in the next few days."

In the 1991 Gulf War, Israel was battered by 39 Scud missiles from Iraq that directly killed two people. More died from heart attacks -- 68 people in all -- than from injuries. This time, military analysts doubt that Saddam's defense forces, far degraded in the past 12 years, have the capability to launch the Scuds -- or would even want to in the first days of war.

Egypt: It's Hussein's fault

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt blamed Iraq for any war with the United States and said he was conducting a desperate, last-minute effort to avert it.

"I hope that the Iraqi government recognizes the seriousness of the situation it has put itself and us in," Mubarak said in a nationally televised speech.

He also admonished the United States and its coalition about the "dangerous consequences of any military action on security and stability of the Middle East region -- as well as on the safety and stability of the world as a whole."

Mubarak pledged Egypt's Suez Canal would remain open to U.S. and allied warships.

Officials in Egypt and throughout the Middle East said they were engaged in frantic consultations. Mubarak said Egyptian leaders were to work through the night, speaking with U.S. and Arab leaders.

"We must do all we can to save the Iraqi people up until the last minute," Mubarak said.

The American attack, however, began early today.

Turkey: At most, air space

Under strong U.S. pressure, the Turkish government asked Parliament to open Turkey's air space to American missiles and warplanes, but it defied the Bush administration by adding a request to send two brigades of Turkish troops into Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region.

The decision ended months of aggressive lobbying by Bush and his senior aides to win Turkish approval for the deployment of U.S. ground troops bound for Iraq and the use of Turkish air bases for American bombing raids. In exchange, billions of dollars in grants were promised.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said those requests and the financial aid are "a thing of the past."

Fearing a "war within a war" between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurdish militias who support the United States against Hussein, American officials and Iraqi Kurdish leaders failed again Wednesday to persuade the Turks to keep their troops home.

Saudi Arabia: Wink, nod

One day after Saui Arabia declared it "will not participate in any way" in a war against Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks on Wednesday visited the computer-crammed bunkers in Riyadh that will serve as the command post for the coming airstrikes against Hussein.

The planned U.S.-led war against Iraq is highly unpopular in Saudi Arabia, so the Saudi royal family is eager to distance itself from the coming conflict. Yet, the kingdom, worried about angering the United States, is taking part in preparations for the war and will be involved, albeit quietly and obliquely, when it comes.

The New York Times, quoting unidentified Western diplomats in the country, reported King Fahd's declaration, read by the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, in an unusual televised address on Tuesday, was meant for domestic consumption -- with a wink and a nod at the Americans.

It is not clear whether the Saudis will lift their ban on using Prince Sultan Air Base for airstrikes against Iraq, or even whether they will allow U.S. aircraft to use Saudi air space for attacks. Saudi government officials declined to comment Wednesday.

The United States has an estimated 5,500 troops based at the base, a sprawling tract of desert that was little more than an airstrip during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But Washington subsequently spent hundreds of millions of dollars to transform it into one of its largest bases of operations in the Middle East.

The government, meanwhile, has stepped up security in its Eastern Province, near the Iraqi border, in an effort to prevent refugees from entering the country. The government expects as many as 100,000 people to attempt to flee into Saudi Arabia and insists none will be allowed to enter.

Bahrain: Offer of exile

King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa of Bahrain said his country was ready to offer sanctuary to Hussein, Bahrain's official BNA news agency reported.

Saudi Arabia publicly has refused to offer itself as a haven for Hussein and his family. In the past, Saudi Arabia did provide exile for Idi Amin, the deposed leader of Uganda, and Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister of Pakistan.

Kuwait: Stick together

Kuwait's ruler urged his people Wednesday to stay united, saying, "A rash, unreasonable, unwise word is a weapon we put in the hands of this enemy (Hussein) willingly."

The emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, was likely alluding to recent statements by Muslim extremists in Kuwait who have called the impending war a "crusader campaign" aimed at taking control of Muslim countries.

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