BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq insisted Monday that a U.N. order to start destroying its Al Samoud 2 missile program by the end of the week was still open to negotiation, but a U.N. official in Baghdad ruled out further discussion.
A top adviser to Saddam Hussein, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, said Iraq was still drafting its response to the order.
"This is being studied very carefully and the channels are still open" between Iraq and the United Nations, he said Monday. "We will come up with a decision quite soon."
"There is an open dialogue between us and (the weapons inspectors) and we hope that it will be settled," he added.
U.N. weapons inspectors say the missiles can fly farther than the 93-mile limit imposed by the United Nations at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
The range limit means Iraq is permitted to have missiles that could reach neighboring Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and Jordan — but not Israel.
Iraq's response on the Al Samoud 2 will likely be a key factor in determining how the U.N. Security Council votes on a resolution the United States and Britain are expected to introduce Monday designed to win approval for an attack on Iraq. The United States has said it may go ahead with an attack even if it doesn't win Security Council approval.
Iraq's chief liaison to weapons inspectors, Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin, said Iraq sent a letter to chief inspector Hans Blix last week asking for a reevaluation of the range.
"We have suggested to (the inspectors) that they randomly choose any missile they want and check its range. We are sure its range will be less," he said.
"We are still waiting for a response," he told a news conference late Sunday.
But a U.N. official in Baghdad said the response already had come — in the form of Blix's order Friday to begin destroying the missiles by the end of this week.
"This is not negotiable," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Separately, the United States on Monday overcame a hurdle in military preparations with Turkey's Cabinet agreeing to the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, allowing for a possible northern front against Iraq.
Turkey's parliament was expected to vote Tuesday on whether to allow the troops. A deadlock on the issue was broken when Washington offered Turkey $5 billion in aid and $10 billion in loans to cushion its economy in a war.
In Beijing, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Chinese support for the second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force against Saddam, but the Chinese stood by their position that U.N. inspections should continue. It was not clear whether China would exercise its veto power if a second resolution is voted on by the Council.
Former U.S. Attorney-General Ramsey Clark ended a three-day trip to Baghdad Monday saying Saddam is convinced President Bush will attack him regardless of how he cooperates with the inspectors.
But Clark said that didn't mean Saddam wouldn't try to cooperate with them.
"He's thinking he'll do anything that he reasonably can that is honorable and protective of the sovereignty of his people to prevent war," Clark said a day after he met with the Iraqi president.
While in Baghdad Clark sought to assess Iraq's readiness for a war. He said he would appeal to aid groups to help prevent a civilian catastrophe.
"They're terribly short on the things they would need to treat thousands of wounded, injured and burned citizens, which is what happens when you bomb cities," he said. "They will lose thousands of lives, a million lives, if they don't have the ability to treat wounded people."
The Russian Foreign Ministry also said Monday that Saddam had promised an envoy of President Vladimir Putin that international inspectors won't be hindered in their work.
A foreign ministry statement said Saddam made the promise in a meeting Sunday in Baghdad with Yevgeny Primakov, a former Russian prime minister. Primakov has mediated in Iraq on several occasions, most prominently with attempts to stave off the 1991 Gulf War.
Later Monday, Russia issued another strongly worded statement opposing a war over Iraq and said it will use its "entire arsenal of diplomatic means" to reach a peaceful solution.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected Baghdad would go ahead with the destruction in the end.
"If they refused to destroy the weapons, the Security Council will have to make a decision," Annan said during a trip to Turkey. "I don't see why they would not destroy them."
Blix offered a harsher view, telling Time magazine in an interview to be published Monday that "of course they have no credibility" and "diplomacy may need to be backed up by force."
The inspectors continued their inventory of Al Samoud 2 components on Monday, going to two factories that make the missile's guidance systems and engines. They also went to a chemical and explosives plant and an anti-aircraft missile maintenance facility, Iraq's Information Ministry said.
Al-Saadi's comments to reporters came after meeting with a team of South African disarmament experts visiting Iraq. South Africa's experience is key, because it built nuclear weapons, then voluntarily dismantled them in the 1980s.
"There are some identical cases, such as missing documents or the lack of documents or the unilateral destruction of weapons and interviews," al-Saadi said.
South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, told the AP after the meeting that his team would remain in Baghdad "as long as the hosts want us to stay to discuss our experience. We will stay as long as they need us to stay."
Editorials in Iraq's official press on Monday said the new resolution was a ploy by the United States and President Bush.
"The little Bush continues to despise the United Nations and the Security Council," the government daily Al-Jumhuriya said.
Amin repeated claims that Iraq is "clean" of weapons of mass destruction, and said Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors in an attempt to prove it.