Published March 18, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein and his sons aren't going anywhere, Iraq's leadership said Tuesday, rejecting President Bush's ultimatum that the dictator and his family leave the country or face imminent war with the United States and its allies.
Saddam's elder son, Odai Hussein, calling Bush "unstable" and saying he "should give up power in America with his family," flatly rejected the idea of exile and warned that a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States.
A defiant Saddam appeared Tuesday night on Iraqi television in military uniform, in what appeared to signal his role as defender of the nation. Saddam last appeared in a military uniform after the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraq's al-Shabab television, owned by Odai, said the decision to defy Bush's ultimatum was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council -- Iraq's highest executive body -- and the leadership of the ruling Baath party.
Saddam chaired the session.
A statement read by the announcer said the meeting condemned the ultimatum.
"Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv," it said.
"The pathetic Bush was hoping ... to achieve his evil targets without a fight through that declaration (the ultimatum) which reflects a state of isolation and defeat from which he and his pathetic allies are suffering from," the statement said.
Also Tuesday, in what appeared to signal the end of Arab efforts to avert a war, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called off a possible last-minute peacemaking trip to Iraq.
"Due to developments we've witnessed in the last few hours, it won't be possible for the secretary-general to visit Baghdad," said his spokesman, Hisham Youssef.
Al-Shabab television later reported that Saddam chaired a strategy meeting that brought together his son Qusai, who heads the elite Republican Guard, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the chief-of-staff of the armed forces and the commanders of the air force and air defense. The announcer said the meeting reviewed war plans and military readiness.
There was no immediate word from Qusai Hussein, now widely thought to be his father's right-hand man. He is in charge of Saddam's personal protection and the elite Republican Guard Corps.
The television station, as well as state radio, also called on Iraqis to demonstrate across the country beginning at 5 p.m. to show their support for Saddam.
Soon after the broadcast, about 5,000 demonstrators gathered at the Iraqi capital's Al-Mansour area. Many were armed and wore the olive-green uniform of Saddam's Baath party.
Waving portraits of the Iraqi leader, the demonstrators chanted, "We sacrifice ourselves for you Saddam, with our blood and souls!" They carried banners that read, "Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam."
Smaller demonstrations took place elsewhere in Baghdad, but there were no immediate reports of demonstrations elsewhere in Iraq.
Meanwhile, people mobbed bakeries and gas stations in a frantic rush for supplies. The dinar, Iraq's currency, also lost ground against the U.S. dollar, slumping to about 2,800 to the dollar, compared to 2,600 a week ago.
At Saddam International Airport, hundreds of passengers snatched up tickets to Jordan and Syria -- the only destinations available Tuesday.
The diplomatic exodus continued, with ambassadors from Greece and France taking the overland road to Jordan. Diplomats from China, Germany and the Czech Republic left earlier in the week.
In a speech Monday night, after failing to secure U.N. authorization to use force to disarm Iraq, Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to step down or face war.
"The tyrant will soon be gone," Bush said in the televised address to the nation.
It wasn't clear if the ultimatum was widely seen in Iraq, where information is tightly controlled and most Iraqis are barred from owning satellite dishes.
Top military officers are likely to be among the minority of privileged Iraqis with access to satellite TV and may have seen it. Lower-ranking officers may have been able to hear the speech on radio stations like the BBC and Washington's Radio Sawa, which are clandestinely listened to in the country.
Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri, said war would destabilize the region as well as the rest of the world. "I think this would be a mistake, a grave mistake from the part of the American administration to launch this war against my country," he said in New York.
Nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops are in the region poised to strike, backed by five aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf.
Defiant to the end, Saddam warned that American forces would find an Iraqi fighter ready to die for his country "behind every rock, tree and wall."
But he made a late bid Monday to avert war, acknowledging that Iraq had once possessed weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from Iran and Israel, but insisting that it no longer has them.
"We are not weapons collectors," the official Iraqi News Agency quoted him as telling Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, who was visiting Baghdad in a quest to avert war.
"When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says," Saddam said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.