U.N. Helicopters Leave Iraq as Saddam Prepares for War

Most of the helicopters used by U.N. weapons inspectors were flown to Syria on Sunday en route to Cyprus, Iraq said, after a Western insurance company suspended its coverage for the aircraft.

The move follows growing fears of an imminent U.S.-led invasion as the leaders of the main three nations pushing for military action -- President Bush, Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain -- were holding an emergency summit Sunday in the Azores islands.

On Sunday, Germany issued a new travel warning urging its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" and said it would close its embassy once they left. Diplomatic sources in Baghdad said other European diplomats were scheduled to leave Monday.

On Saturday, President Saddam Hussein placed Iraq on a war footing, placing his son and three trusted lieutenants in charge of four military regions to defend against any attack.

The decree by the Revolutionary Command Council -- Iraq's highest executive body -- appeared to signal Baghdad's resignation that war may have become inevitable. Nonetheless, the government continued its efforts to avert war by destroying more of its banned missiles and handing over videotapes of mobile laboratories to inspectors in compliance with U.N. resolutions.

The council placed Saddam's son Qusai in charge of the regime's heartland -- Baghdad and the president's hometown of Tikrit. Qusai has for years been in charge of the elite Republican Guard Corps and his father's own personal security, leading many to speculate that he could be his father's successor.

Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid was placed in charge of the key southern sector facing U.S. and British troops massed in Kuwait. Al-Majid is known among Saddam's opponents as "Chemical Ali" for his role in the 1988 campaign against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq in which thousands of Kurds died, many in chemical attacks.

Saddam's deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was placed in command of the strategic northern region. An area that includes the Shiite Muslim holy sites of Karbala and Najaf was placed under Mazban Khader Hadi, a member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.

Saddam himself retained sole authority to order the use of surface-to-surface missiles and aviation resources, the decree said.

The U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, Hiro Ueki, said he had no immediate comment on Iraq's announcement that five of the eight U.N. helicopters had departed. They have been used by the inspectors since January to travel across Iraq to visit sites suspected of involvement in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.

The five that left were U.S.-made Bell-212 helicopters. The three remaining are Russian-made Mi-8s, which are insured by another company and would continue to be used in the inspections, according to a statement by the National Monitoring Directorate, the Iraqi state agency that liaises with the inspectors.

Iraq, meanwhile, destroyed more of its banned Al Samoud 2 missiles on Sunday and also handed over videotapes and photographs of mobile laboratories suspected by the United States and Britain of being used to develop or retain biological agents, Ueki said. He gave no details.

Inspectors also visited a technology college in the town of Karbala south of Baghdad, according to the Information Ministry.

On Saturday, Saddam's scientific adviser, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, said the government had invited chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei to Baghdad to discuss outstanding disarmament issues.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, Blix said he would study the invitation and discuss it with the council. Asked if the Iraqi invitation was a stunt, he told CNN: "I certainly wouldn't call it a stunt. ... We'll have to give serious thought to what the answer will be."

With nearly 250,000 U.S. and British troops in the Gulf ready to strike, Iraq has been emboldened by stiff opposition to war at the Security Council, where France and other nations have insisted inspectors should be given more time.

An Iraqi newspaper, Al-Jumhuriya, on Sunday gloated over the stiff opposition to U.S. plans, saying the "arrogance of force" shown by Bush and Blair would not achieve any goals because "Iraq is more prepared than ever to confront and defeat any aggression."

France, Russia and Germany, meanwhile, issued a joint statement Saturday insisting there was no reason for war, but calling for foreign ministers to meet this week at the Security Council to set a timetable for Iraq to disarm.

On Monday, Blix is to present the Security Council with his plans for upcoming inspections. He has said recently that Baghdad is showing more "proactive" cooperation with inspectors, but the United States and its allies insist that Saddam is deceiving the inspectors.

Blix and ElBaradei have visited Baghdad twice since the United Nations resumed weapons inspections in Iraq in November after a four-year break. Each time they have pressed the Iraqis for greater cooperation with their mission to verify that the country is rid of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Iraq says it no longer has such weapons.