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Baghdad Remains Defiant as Deadline Passes

The streets of Baghdad were deserted early Thursday, with almost no sign of military preparation as President Bush's deadline passed for Saddam Hussein to leave the country or face war.

In the minutes after the 4 a.m. ultimatum expired, Iraqi TV replayed footage of a pro-Saddam march earlier in the week, with people brandishing rifles, chanting slogans and carrying pictures of the Iraqi leader.

All was quiet, too, in the Kurdish north.

At the edge of the autonomous zone, armed Kurdish militiamen manned a checkpoint on a muddy hillside under sporadic rain. The only lights were the tips of their cigarettes.

On Wednesday, hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath party and security forces took up positions throughout Baghdad, behind sandbags and in foxholes. As the deadline approached, about half of them left the streets.

There was no sign during the day of regular army troops.

Al-Shabab -- the most watched station in Iraq and owned by Saddam's son Odai -- broadcast hours of patriotic songs Wednesday and extensive archive footage of Saddam greeting crowds and firing off a rifle.

At night, the station showed a 1991 American thriller, The Guilty, starring Bill Pullman. (The plot involves U.S. lawyer who rapes an employee and hires his estranged son to kill her.)

Almost every store was shut in Baghdad during the day and traffic was light as residents continued to stream out of the capital, heading for the relative safety of the countryside.

Iraqi officials, however, remained defiant in the face of about 300,000 U.S. and British troops backed by 1,000 warplanes and a fleet of warships -- all ready for an attack on Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction that Washington and London say Saddam is concealing.

President Bush gave Saddam and his sons until 4 a.m. local time Thursday (8 p.m. EST Wednesday) to leave Iraq or face war. Saddam rejected the 48-hour ultimatum on Tuesday.

Members of Iraq's parliament declared their loyalty to Saddam on Wednesday and renewed their confidence in his leadership.

"We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership," they said in a message to Saddam issued at the end of their session.

Speaker Saadoun Hammadi opened the meeting by saying: "The people of Iraq, with a free and honest will, have spoken decisively and clearly in choosing their mujahid leader Saddam Hussein president of the country."

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, meanwhile, appeared at a news conference in Baghdad, putting to rest rumors he had abandoned the Iraqi regime and declaring that he, like other Iraqis, would rally behind Saddam.

Ruling out a last-minute political solution, Aziz told the hurriedly convened news conference: "We are ready to fight, prepared to face the aggressors and are certain of victory."

Aziz scoffed at rumors of his defection as part of a psychological war against Iraq, adding: "It is not going to be a short war, unless he [President Bush] decides to end his aggression. It is not going to be a picnic for him."

"I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors," said Aziz, who appeared in uniform. "American soldiers are nothing but mercenaries and they will be defeated."

Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state allied with the United States, offered Saddam a haven Wednesday, the first such offer to be publicly extended to the Iraqi leader as Arabs scramble to avert war. There was no immediate comment in Baghdad on the offer.

The Baath loyalists and security forces, meanwhile, stood behind hundreds of sandbagged positions built throughout the city over the past two weeks. Some were inside foxholes. Most were armed with Kalashnikovs, but some had rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns. On the city's southern fringes, several anti-aircraft guns could be seen.

Even Baghdad's traffic policemen wore helmets and carried assault rifles.

The Baathists, who wore olive-green uniforms and deployed in clusters of fours and fives, are widely expected to take charge of keeping law and order in Baghdad and other main Iraqi cities in the event of war.

Saddam, Iraq's president of 23 years, also was expected to look to them and other loyal militiamen and troops to deal with any anti-government stirrings by groups tempted to capitalize on the chaos caused by war to try to seize power.

Curiously, there was no sign Wednesday of Iraq's army troops or armor in or outside Baghdad, where Saddam is widely expected to make his final stand against any invaders.

The Iraqi leadership rejected Bush's ultimatum Tuesday in a statement issued after a joint meeting of the top executive Revolution Command Council and the Baath Party -- chaired by Saddam.

Asked after Wednesday's parliament's session whether Saddam would bow to U.S. demands and flee, Hammadi said: "He will be in front of everyone. He will fight and guide our country to victory. This is absolutely unthinkable."

Iraq's parliament is a rubber-stamp legislature. Saddam's Revolution Command Council and the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party have the final say in the country.

Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told a news conference Wednesday that Washington was deceiving American troops about the number of casualties they would sustain.

"We tell American soldiers and officers in Kuwait or wherever else they may be: 'Open your eyes and be alert to the lies of the American administration' ... [to say that] invading Iraq will be like a picnic is a stupid idea," he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Baghdad residents did last-minute shopping at the food stores that remained open, seemingly resigned that war would come within hours.

"We cry for Baghdad," said civil servant and part-time Baghdad historian Abdel-Jabar al-Tamimi. "Tonight, we shall be awake waiting for the bombs to fall, but we will also remember that God is stronger than oppression. Wars come and go, but Baghdad will remain."

Shelves in many shops in the commercial heart of Baghdad were nearly empty after store owners moved their merchandise to warehouses, fearing bombing or looting.

"I took all my goods home for fear of the bombing," said Tareq Khalil, who owns a store that sells eyeglass frames on Al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad's oldest surviving road.

The dinar, Iraq's currency, also lost ground against the U.S. dollar, slumping to about 2,900 to the dollar, compared to 2,800 on Tuesday and 2,600 a week ago.

Along the road from Baghdad to Jordan, gas stations were crowded but traffic was thin.

Some gas stations along the sand-swept route had emptied their tanks trying to match the demand, with the cost of a gallon of gas soaring to nearly $4 from its usual 8 cents.

U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq on Tuesday, ordered out by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the United States indicated war was near.

Foreign Minister Naji Sabri criticized Annan for withdrawing the inspectors as well as humanitarian workers and U.N. observers on the Iraq-Kuwait border, calling it a violation of U.N. resolutions that cleared "the path for aggression."