Published March 17, 2003
| Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – President Saddam Hussein said Monday that Iraq once had weapons of mass destruction for defense against Iran and Israel but no longer holds them, the Iraqi News Agency said.
The agency said Saddam made the remarks while meeting with a Tunisian envoy.
"We are not weapons collectors," Saddam said. "But we had these weapons for purposes of self-defense when we were at war with Iran for eight years and when the Zionist entity (Israel) was, and it still is, a threat."
Iraq and Iran fought a ruinous 1980-1988 war in which chemical weapons were used.
"When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says," Saddam said.
He also said his country had fully cooperated with U.N. inspectors seeking to verify that Iraq had eliminated its weapons of mass destruction. President Bush has warned Saddam bluntly to disarm or face the consequences.
"We have a real desire to rid our region and the whole world of weapons of mass destruction," Saddam said.
He then called on the United States to set an example by destroying its own weapons of mass destruction first.
Meanwhile, Germany and the Czech Republic closed their embassies in Baghdad on Monday, other nations prepared to evacuate and, in the clearest sign yet that war is imminent, the United States advised U.N. inspectors to leave.
The United States, Britain and Spain, meanwhile, withdrew their resolution on Iraq, blaming a threatened French veto for their decision to abandon efforts to win U.N. backing for a war. Bush planned to address the nation Monday night to give Saddam a final ultimatum.
In Baghdad, store owners moved their merchandise to the relative safety of warehouses, fearing bombs and looting if a war starts, while residents flooded markets stocking up on food and taped their windows to guard against flying glass.
U.N. observers also halted all operations along the Iraqi-Kuwait border, moving to a heightened state of alert a day after Washington posed a one-day deadline for diplomacy to avert war.
And in northern Iraq, residents streamed out of the city of Chamchamal, a mile from Iraqi forces, heading further into the Kurdish autonomous enclave. Cars, buses, tractors and pickup trucks were laden with rugs, suitcases and other belongings. The enclave is protected by U.S.-British air patrols.
There are nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf ready to strike.
Germany and the Czech Republic said they were closing their embassies in Baghdad and leaving their staff. China was evacuating its ambassador and six other officials while Greece said it expected to have its embassy staff out within a few days.
Britain also advised all its citizens, except diplomatic staff, to leave Kuwait as soon as possible, citing a potential threat from Iraq. Finland issued a similar advisory to all its citizens in Kuwait. The United States ordered all government dependents and nonessential staff out of Kuwait, Syria, Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
The chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, said the United States advised them to begin pulling their inspectors from Iraq.
The Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan were informed and the council was to consider the issue later Monday, ElBaradei said.
Inspectors could leave Iraq on Tuesday if ordered to evacuate, spokesman Hiro Ueki said.
"We may leave sometime tomorrow if we are told to leave," Ueki said.
He denied news reports that the approximately 60 inspectors in Baghdad already were checking out of their Baghdad hotel.
"They are not. They need a place to sleep tonight," he said.
However, journalists outside the Canal Hotel, the inspectors' Baghdad headquarters, saw Iraqi U.N. employees leaving with boxes of personal belongings. Inspectors were seen on the roof of the hotel taking pictures of each other with the city in the background.
Despite the warning, inspections proceeded Monday. The Information Ministry reported visits to four sites. Ueki confirmed that inspection teams were back on the road, but added, "We are ready for any contingency."
U.N. weapons inspectors flew five of their eight helicopters to Syria on Sunday and then on to Cyprus on Monday after an insurance company suspended its coverage. Germany issued a new travel warning, urging its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately."
Foreign journalists, meanwhile, were heading out of Baghdad for Jordan. Two ABC reporters said they were leaving Monday. NBC said it was pulling its six-member television crew from the country, a spokeswoman told The New York Times.
China's official Xinhua news agency said six Chinese reporters were leaving: two from Xinhua, three from Chinese state television and one from an unidentified Hong Kong news outlet.
A week ago, there were 450 foreign journalists in Baghdad. On Monday, there were 300, the Information Ministry said.
Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, meanwhile, launched a verbal attack on the leaders of the United States, Britain, Spain and Portugal over their stance at Sunday's summit.
"The talk that came out from the summit of international outlaws ... shows that they are in a hurry to commit ... aggression on Iraq," he said.
"We have done everything and we shall continue to cooperate with all efforts in order to avert the aggression on our country. But if they give us no other alternative but to defend our country, we will."