BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States and Britain are getting ready to unleash a "devastating" war on Iraq in order to reshape the Middle East for their own purposes, a top Iraqi official said Wednesday.
"The aggressors in Washington and London are preparing for a devastating aggression against ... the people of Iraq," Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a visiting South African delegation. "They would like once again to destroy the City of Peace [Baghdad] as they did in 1991."
Britain and the U.S. moved closer to full war footing Tuesday, with London's defense minister announcing the call-up of reservists and Pentagon military strategists heading for a forward base in the Persian Gulf.
Addressing more immediate issues, Aziz said the United Nations weapons inspectors had strayed beyond the boundaries of their original mission.
"They are searching for other information about Iraq's conventional military capabilities, the Iraqi scientific and industrial capability in the civilian area, and also espionage questions," he said of the monitors.
U.N. weapons teams are empowered by a Security Council resolution to search for evidence of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. A previous regime of inspections ended in 1998 when monitors were withdrawn amid disputes over access to "presidential" facilities and accusations that some inspectors were spying for the U.S. and Britain.
Referring to Iraqi claims that inspectors were seeking to recruit key Iraqis, Aziz said a scientist from Baghdad's Mustansiryia University was asked by inspectors whether his salary was enough for him.
"What has this question to do with the matter of weapons of mass destruction?" Aziz asked.
Asked about similar accusations made by President Saddam Hussein on Tuesday, U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said U.N. officials had received no formal complaint about alleged espionage and had noticed no change in cooperation from Iraqi officials.
"The inspectors are not spies. They are international civil servants," Ueki told reporters Tuesday.
The United States has accused Iraq of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and says it will use force if necessary to disarm the Arab nation. Iraq denies the charges and insists it already has destroyed its biological and chemical weapons and halted its nuclear program and the making of banned missiles.
There have been no known instances of serious problems encountered by the inspectors since they began work Nov. 27.
In a significant move in the run-up to a possible war, the American battle staff that would run a military campaign against Iraq is beginning to assemble at a command post in the small Gulf state of Qatar.
Battle planners from the Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, are heading from their permanent headquarters in Florida to Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar to be in position to carry out any attack order from President Bush, U.S. officials said.
The officials stressed that the move to Qatar does not mean war is imminent or inevitable, but a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said the deployment of battle planners, which began this week, was part of an accelerating buildup of forces in the Gulf region. Tens of thousands more combat forces are scheduled to flow into the region over the next few weeks.
Britain, meanwhile, ordered a task force of ships and 3,000 Royal Marines to head toward the Gulf to confront Iraq "if and as required" and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the call-up of 1,500 reserve soldiers, as Britain joined the United States in increasing military pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld renewed accusations that Iraq was not being forthcoming in revealing its weapons programs as required by U.N. resolutions. He said that while that war with Iraq "clearly is not inevitable," the American troop buildup in the Gulf would continue.
Aziz said his country's standoff with the United States was not about weapons of mass destruction, but rather the destruction of what he called the "strongest country of the area." Iraq was fully cooperating with the inspectors, he argued.
"The real motives behind the whole fuss created by Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair are imperialist motives ... they would like to destroy Iraq being the strongest country of the area, the most independent among them, they want to destroy it and then take the whole region in their hands with all its riches, mainly oil," he said.
Speaking to reporters later Wednesday, Aziz said visits such as the South African one showed that "many, many honest men and women in the world do not believe the lies which are being fabricated in Washington and London, and this is a very important international development."
The inspectors used helicopters Tuesday for the first time since their return to Iraq, sweeping across Iraq's western desert. Ueki, the spokesman for the inspectors, said he was not aware that any helicopters were used Wednesday.
With six of their eight helicopters operational, the inspectors hope to expand the range of their search for banned weapons and spring surprise visits to suspect sites throughout Iraq.
On Wednesday, the inspectors visited eight sites that included three cement factories and a missile solid fuel factory, all south of the capital Baghdad. They also visited Saddam University's medical school in Baghdad, a pharmaceutical company in the northern town of Mosul and a maintenance workshop at the Irrigation Ministry.
Asked if the helicopters would increase the ability to carry out surprise visits, Ueki told a Tuesday news briefing that the arms experts would have to inform Iraqi officials when they plan operations in the country's airspace, but he added: "Of course, we don't have to say where."
"There will be many surprises, I hope," Ueki said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.