BAGHDAD, Iraq – President Saddam Hussein urged the Iraqi people on Thursday to support the new U.N. arms inspections as a welcome opportunity to disprove American allegations that his government still harbors weapons of mass destruction.
The White House quickly rejected those claims, insisting they lack credibility. President Bush, asked on Thursday if the United States was headed toward war, replied: "That's a question you should ask to Saddam Hussein."
In a holiday greeting to Iraqi leaders, Saddam said he agreed to the inspections, in which one of his own palaces was searched, "to keep our people out of harm's way" in the face of U.S. threats.
The Iraqi president's remarks contrasted sharply with a vice president's harsh words about the inspections late Wednesday. Taha Yassin Ramadan had accused the U.N. monitors of being U.S. and Israeli spies and of staging the presidential palace inspection as a provocation.
Saddam spoke at a gathering of the leadership of his Baath Party and the Iraqi military on the first morning of the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
He denounced an "unjust, arrogant, debased American tyranny." Then, turning to U.S. allegations that Iraq retains chemical and biological weapons, he said Iraqis wanted to disprove those claims after a four-year absence of U.N. weapons inspectors from their country.
"Some might claim that we didn't give them a proper chance to resist, with tangible evidence, the American allegations," Saddam said.
"We shall provide them with such a chance," he said, referring to the round of U.N. weapons inspections that began last week.
Washington threatens to go to war against Iraq if, in the U.S. view, it does not cooperate in the disarmament effort. Alluding to eventual war, Saddam declared: "We shall take the stand that befits our people, principles and mission. Victory will be yours."
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States will provide intelligence to U.N. inspectors to prove allegations that Iraq still holds banned weapons.
"The president of the United States and the secretary of Defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it," Fleischer said. "The Iraqi government has proved time and time again to deceive, to mislead and to lie."
Vice President Ramadan, in his remarks the previous evening to a visiting delegation of Egyptian professionals, said of the inspectors: "Their work is to spy to serve the CIA and Mossad," Israel's intelligence service.
The language was reminiscent of clashes with inspectors in the 1990s, and Ramadan, known for his fiery statements, cited only years-old accounts of U.S. agents within the inspection agency of the 1990s. He offered no evidence of such connections in the new inspection agency.
He claimed to his all-Arab audience that the inspectors went to the palace hoping to provoke the Iraqis into refusing them entrance — something he said would be interpreted as a "material breach" of the U.N. resolution that mandated the inspections, and a cause for war.
The resolution includes "several land mines," Ramadan said, "and the aim is that one of them will go off."
Responding to Iraqi protests over the palace inspection, a U.N. official said the inspectors are taking the right approach — navigating between Iraqi complaints and U.S. pressure for more severe inspections. And, said inspections team leader Demetrius Perricos, "we are getting results."
Among other things, Perricos reported that on a five-hour inspection of a desert installation on Wednesday, his experts secured a dozen Iraqi artillery shells — previously known to be there — that were loaded with a powerful chemical weapon, the agent for mustard gas. It was the first report of such armaments traced and controlled in the week-old round of new inspections.
The inspections resumed last week after a four-year suspension, under a new U.N. Security Council resolution requiring Iraq to surrender any remaining weapons of mass destruction and shut down any programs to make them.
After a week of searches, the inspectors took a break Thursday and Friday, the first days of the three-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Iraq is predominantly Muslim.
A critical deadline approaches this weekend for the Baghdad government. On Saturday, it is expected to submit a declaration to the United Nations on any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as on nuclear, chemical and biological programs it says are peaceful.
The Bush administration alleges Baghdad retains some chemical and biological weapons— missed during 1990s inspections — and has not abandoned plans for nuclear weapons.
The Iraqi government maintains it no longer holds such weapons, and will say so in the declaration.
The inspectors' new mandate toughens their powers to search anywhere, anytime in Iraq for signs of prohibited armaments. They took advantage of that authority on Tuesday to demand and receive quick entry to the opulent al-Sajoud palace in Baghdad, one of dozens of palaces built by Saddam during his 23-year rule.
The team's 1 1/2 -hour inspection was a brief but symbolic show of U.N. muscle.
"We consider the entry of the presidential sites as unjustified and really unnecessary," said Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, chief Iraqi liaison to the inspectors. Amin added, however, that Iraq would not try to block U.N. visits to other palaces.