Published March 13, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq gloated Thursday over the diplomatic turmoil that has entangled U.S. war plans, rejecting a British compromise out of hand and snubbing an Arab peace mission. Civilians dug foxholes and prepared — in the foreign minister's words — to turn Iraq into "an American graveyard."
At the same time, Iraq tried to win hearts and minds in its own neighborhood, agreeing to free hundreds of Iranians from its jails. And the destruction of Al Samoud 2 missiles continued as U.N. weapons inspectors looked on.
But war — the likelihood of it, and preparations for it — took center stage.
The American effort to press the United Nations to accept a deadline for Iraq to disarm, or face war, drew scorn from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, as did a British proposal to set six tests Saddam Hussein must pass to avoid bloodshed.
Sabri rejected both two proposals. They were, he said, essentially the same.
"The United States ... wants international cover for this aggression. I don't think the United States will succeed," he said. He called the British proposal "an attempt to beautify a rejected aggressive project."
Iraqi newspapers reveled in the setbacks suffered by their opponents.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair obviously "have lost the round before it starts while we, along with well-intentioned powers in the world, have won it," the popular daily Babil, owned by Saddam's son Odai, said in a front-page editorial.
"Blair's future is at stake now, and his downfall will be a harsh lesson in Britain's political history."
Sabri rebuffed a high-level Arab League peace mission scheduled to travel to Baghdad this week. He said top Iraqi officials wouldn't have time to meet with the dignitaries, who included the foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
The announcement suggested the Iraqi leadership feared the delegates would urge Saddam to make concessions to the United Nations or even step down, although the delegation has not publicly endorsed calls for Saddam to resign.
The Arab League called the postponement "negative" and "ill-timed," saying it "censored Arab efforts ... for finding a way to avert the war and destruction."
But Iraq also made a gesture that appeared timed to win support among Muslims. It said it would release 349 Iranians in Iraqi jails next week; in return, Iran said it had agreed to free all of its 1,241 Iraqi prisoners.
Some of those to be released were prisoners of war captured during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, which killed or injured about 1 million people.
Iran-Iraq prisoner exchanges have become routine. But this announcement came as Iraq seeks to fan support among Muslim and Arabs whose governments it accuses of giving too little support to Iraq in the face of U.S. threats.
Iran is no supporter of Saddam, but has repeatedly said it opposes a unilateral U.S. attack against Iraq.
On the streets of Baghdad, officials of Saddam's Baath Party rounded up young volunteers to dig foxholes, build sandbagged fighting positions and erect bunkers covered in camouflaged netting in residential neighborhoods.
Such preparations had been common around key government installations, but began only recently in civilian neighborhoods. Neighbors organized outdoor bakeries that could operate through a war and dug community wells. They also prepared to fight.
"The war might come in seconds or even split seconds. We are fully prepared for it, in a way that even the United States won't expect," said party official Faisal Mohammed Youssef, helping sandbag a street corner. "They will be killed in places they can't imagine."
Sabri, in an interview with the Qatar-based television broadcaster Al-Jazeera, said millions of Iraqis were armed and ready to fight, and thousands of supporters from other Arab countries were training alongside Iraqi soldiers.
"It is their right to fight to defend Iraq, and it is our duty to give them opportunity and prepare them for this. Therefore, we receive hundreds daily," he said.
"We will turn the land of Iraq into an American graveyard. We will chop off the heads of anyone who tries to violate Iraqi territory," he said, adding: "None of them will survive this holocaust the Iraqi people are preparing for those aggressors."
Even as Sabri issued his dire warnings, U.N. weapons inspectors continued their work. Among other sites, they visited a tomato canning plant 30 miles south of Baghdad. On the way back, a car carrying two inspectors crashed head-on with a truck and careered into a swamp. One inspector was killed, the other injured.
Meanwhile, Iraq destroyed three more Al Samoud 2 missiles Thursday, as well as seven of the missiles' warheads, 22 unassembled tail sections and other missile materials, according to inspectors' spokesman Hiro Ueki.
Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix banned the missiles because they can fly farther than a 93-mile limit. Since March 1, Iraq has crushed 61 of the missiles, from an arsenal of about 100.