BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.N. nuclear chief warned in an interview published Monday that war is imminent if Saddam Hussein doesn't change his ways. Weapons inspectors announced Iraq has destroyed about half its banned Al Samoud 2 missiles.
The United States and France led a flurry of lobbying Monday over a plan to give Saddam a deadline of March 17 to prove he has disarmed or face war. U.S. diplomats said they would push for a U.N. Security Council vote this week.
Mohammed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat he will send a message to Saddam with five Arab foreign ministers this week proposing "an essential change in spirit and essence."
"If Iraq, during the coming week or the next two weeks, failed to present absolute evidence that it does not possess [banned] weapons, we will walk the path of war," ElBaradei was quoted as saying. "The next two weeks will be decisive, and the ball is still in the Iraqi court."
ElBaradei said he would recommend that Saddam let weapons inspectors interview scientists outside Iraq -- which would allow them to defect if their comments put them at risk -- and present more evidence that he has destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction.
Doing that might buy Iraq time, he said.
"The basic issue is that the U.S. would not agree on extending this period without providing absolute indications that it will lead to positive results," he said.
Opposition to the U.S.-backed resolution hardened Monday. French President Jacques Chirac said his country was prepared to use its veto if necessary. France, Chirac said, would vote against any resolution that contains an ultimatum leading to war: "No matter what the circumstances we will vote 'no.'"
Also Monday, the speaker of Russia's parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, told Saddam that Russia will vote against the ultimatum, the official Iraqi News Agency reported. The two were shown on Iraqi television shaking hands and smiling. Russian Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov also said Russia will vote against the resolution, the Interfax news agency reported from Moscow.
"From his side, Mr. Hussein, who impressed me as being surprisingly calm, said that he is convinced the United Nations will not allow this action," Seleznyov told Interfax.
The Iraqi newspaper Babil, owned by Saddam's son Odai, urged the Security Council to oppose the U.S. ultimatum, saying the body must not be ruled by the "bloodthirsty whims for a group of adventurers in Washington."
If the resolution is defeated, the U.S. and British governments have said they would be prepared to go to war anyway with a coalition of willing nations.
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said Monday that invading forces "are not going to take Iraq easily" because Iraqis will fight to defend their country.
"They want us to surrender to them before the war," he said. "We shall not surrender at all, and when they fight ... we will fight them -- courageously and effectively -- and they will fail. They will fail."
As part of its most visible move to disarm, Iraq continued to crush its Al Samoud 2 missiles, which chief weapons inspector Hans Blix ordered destroyed because they can fly farther than allowed under U.N. resolutions.
Inspectors' spokesman Hiro Ueki said bulldozers crushed six more missiles Monday, meaning Iraq has destroyed more than half its arsenal since March 1. Of 100 missiles Iraq was believed to have, 52 have been destroyed.
Iraq also destroyed three Al Samoud 2 warheads, bringing the number of those destroyed to 19, Ueki said.
Inspectors interviewed an Iraqi involved in the country's destruction of precursors for chemical weapons production, Ueki said. Interviews with such scientists began in earnest only Feb. 28, when Iraq began pressuring the scientists to talk.
Weapons inspectors also visited a former airfield where they have been trying to verify Iraq's claims that it destroyed bombs filled with biological agent 12 years ago.
The threat of war was taking a toll on Iraq. The Iraqi dinar slid to 2,600 to the dollar, down from 2,200 to the dollar last month. It was worth more than $3 in 1990.
Prices for basic goods like powdered milk, sugar and cooking oil rose sharply as Iraqis stocked up on basic supplies. People dug wells and trenches in their yards and police patrolled the streets. Foxholes surrounded by sandbags dotted the city.
Also Monday, Iraq asked the Security Council to consider punishing the United States and Kuwait for cutting seven holes in a 120-mile fence separating Kuwait and Iraq.
U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the border found the holes being cut by men in civilian clothes who identified themselves as U.S. Marines, the United Nations said.
In a letter sent Sunday and made public Monday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to take the report to the Security Council.
"The participation of Kuwait in this aggression will carry legal responsibilities according to international law and the U.N. charter," he wrote. He said the action "represents a threat to the world's security."