Iraq will not fall as quickly as Afghanistan's Taliban regime did, the country's vice president said Friday, warning that Iraqis will fight "tooth and nail" against any U.S. invasion and suggesting Iraq would strike Israel if attacked.
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan made the comments after talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the latest Arab leader he has met in a tour to rally support against the United States.
"Iraq will fight tooth and nail to defend its territory," Ramadan told reporters. "Iraq is not Afghanistan and the U.S. Administration is aware of that."
The Bush administration has been debating a military campaign to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Washington accuses Iraq of rebuilding facilities to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Ramadan also strongly hinted that in the event of a U.S. attack, Iraq might fire Scud missiles at Israel as it did during the 1991 Gulf War.
"When a (military) confrontation occurs, it is Iraq's right to confront any country anywhere and at any time," Ramadan replied when asked if Iraq would fire Scuds at Israel.
Ramadan blamed the United States for freezing the dialogue between Iraq and the United Nations on resuming weapons inspections, a top U.S. and U.N. demand. He told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation that his government wants to continue the discussions. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan have met three times so far this year.
In a bid to revive the negotiations, Sabri wrote to Annan on Aug. 1, proposing that the chief U.N. weapons inspector visit Baghdad for technical talks.
But Annan rejected the proposal in an Aug. 6 reply, insisting that Iraq accept a Security Council roadmap for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors and issue a "formal invitation" for inspections to resume.
President Bush has warned Iraq of unspecified consequences if it does not allow the return of inspectors, who are charged with verifying that Baghdad has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction and the means of producing them.
"We believe that dialogue is still continuing, but the freezing and suspending of it, and the failure to set dates for new sessions, came as a result of pressure by the U.S. administration," Ramadan said on LBC television.
The vice president reiterated that Iraq believed the negotiations with the United Nations should be broader than the issue of weapons inspectors, a condition Annan has rejected.
"The dialogue cannot be confined to the resumption of the inspectors' work because their task has been accomplished in the past seven years," Ramadan said.
Iraq claims that it has eliminated its mass destruction weapons. However, when the inspectors left Iraq in late 1998, they were still seeking information from the Baghdad government on the weapons programs.
The inspectors left shortly before U.S.-British airstrikes, after which Baghdad barred their return.
Meanwhile, for the sixth time in a week, coalition aircraft bombed an Iraqi defense facility Friday in one of the no-fly zones patrolled for a decade by U.S. and British pilots.
International opposition to a possible U.S. attack on Iraq has been growing, with European governments calling for renewed pressure on the inspections issue.
"We have to keep up the pressure on Saddam Hussein to get the U.N. arms inspectors back into the country," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, chairman of the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Denmark, said Friday.