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Iraq Warns of Heavy Losses If Attacked

An Iraqi Cabinet minister warned Tuesday that the United States would suffer "the heaviest losses" if it attacked his country.

Meanwhile, U.N. arms inspectors visited eight sites suspected of involvement in the making of banned weapons.

The Baghdad-based Iraq daily quoted Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh as saying the country was ready for war and "will fight much harder than it did in the 1991, U.S.-led aggression if the United States launches an attack."

"Whether we give our land or not, whether we give our future or not, whether we give our houses or not," Saleh continued, "this is what we are fighting for."

The minister said three months of food rations had been given to Iraqis as a precaution in case war broke out.

"When we fight in the streets, in cities and villages, food will be available and guns will be available," Saleh said. "We will inflict the heaviest losses on them and they will be repelled from our country if they dare to attack us."

The sites visited by U.N. inspectors included an engineering company owned by the state Military Industry Corporation, a military chemical unit west of the capital Baghdad, an oil research center, an electronics factory that produces components such as transistors and a medical research center.

The United States accuses Iraq of stockpiling mass destruction weapons and says it will use force if necessary to disarm Iraq if the Arab nation does not fully cooperate with the inspectors.

If Iraq can convince the inspectors that it has no such weapons or the capability to manufacture them, it could avoid a threatened U.S. military strike and eventually see the lifting of economic sanctions imposed following its invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990.

Quoting U.S. intelligence officials, the Washington Times reported Tuesday that Iraq was hiding two weapons scientists in Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces and that there were signs chemical and biological weapons materials have recently been moved to underground storage facilities unknown to the inspectors.

The officials, according to the newspaper, said the scientists were being hidden apparently to prevent the inspectors from questioning them.

The officials did not identify the scientists by name, but said that one was believed to be involved in Iraq's covert nuclear arms program and the second was a chemical and biological weapons specialist, the newspaper reported.

Iraq has submitted a list of the names of 500 scientists whom it says had worked on its mass destruction weapons programs, but has raised objections to U.S. demands for them to be interviewed outside the country, urging that any interviews be held in Iraq. The United States says it cannot vouch for the validity of the list.

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he did not yet see any justification for a military strike against Iraq since Baghdad had not hampered the work of the inspectors. The United States should wait for a report from the inspectors before launching any offensive, he added.

"Obviously they are carrying out their work and in the meantime Iraq is cooperating and they are able to do their work in an unimpeded manner," Annan told Israel's Army radio in an interview.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said over the weekend that the United States has yet to decide whether to attack Iraq.

"The president has not made a decision yet with respect to the use of military force or with respect to going back to the United Nations," Powell said. "And of course, we are positioning ourselves and positioning our military forces for whatever might be required."

In a letter to Annan, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri protested a U.S. airstrike that led to the reported deaths of three Iraqis and the wounding of 16 in southern Iraq. He said the Dec. 26 airstrike was a material breach to Security Council resolutions and constituted "a barbaric and terrorist act, with a direct participation of the rulers of Kuwait."

Sabri's letter was dated Dec. 30, but it was faxed to The Associated Press office in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarek Aziz, meanwhile, met Tuesday with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders and later told reporters that he wished that such people were the ones who made policies.

"It's not in their hands. The situation is still in the hands of the warmongers. We hope that they will listen to the voice of peace."

He said visits by such delegations gave the outside world a better picture of life in Iraq. "Whenever there is a delegation from the United States or Europe, we benefit from it," he said.

A team of 13 U.S. religious leaders and experts are on a four-day visit to Iraq that's to include tours of schools and hospitals and meetings with Iraqi Christians. The delegation is led by Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Iraq has seen the arrival of such groups from around the world as a signal its point of view is getting across to the world.

On Monday, President Saddam Hussein's chief science adviser Amir al-Saadi spoke to a visiting group of Spanish peace activists and repeated Iraq's assertion that it has no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or the missiles to deliver them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.