Saddam defiant, troops move closer to Iraq border girding for war

By Mark Johnson, Peter Smolowitz and Martin Merzer Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) SOMEWHERE IN KUWAIT _ Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein _ defiant and dressed for battle _ Tuesday rejected President Bush’s demand that he flee into exile. The White House called it Saddam’s “final mistake.” The 48-hour deadline imposed by the United States arrives at 8 p.m. EST Wednesday. War could explode at any moment after that _ or sooner if Saddam is caught preparing to use nerve gas or seems ready to destroy dams or oil fields. A U.S.-led invasion force of 300,000 troops awaits the order to attack. “It’s a good thing we’re going to do,” Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the commander of U.S. and allied ground forces, told troops in Kuwait just before they moved to within 10 miles of Iraq. “It’s a noble thing we’re going to do.” Now on the cusp of war overseas, the United States also stands at the second-highest level of alert at home. In Washington, authorities expressed new concern about terrorist attacks against Americans at home and abroad, and the Agriculture Department told farmers and food processors to monitor the nation’s food supply more closely. “Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups, other regional extremist organizations and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals may use this time period to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States,” said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Authorities enhanced security at borders, airports, seaports and elsewhere. At the White House, guards extended the security perimeter around the executive mansion and prohibited pedestrians from walking along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of it. Speaking from the White House on Monday night, the president gave Saddam and sons Odai and Qusai 48 hours to leave Iraq or face an invasion. On Tuesday, for the first time since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam appeared on Iraqi television dressed in military uniform. His sons and aides issued statements of defiance and vows of resistance. “Iraq doesn’t choose its path through foreigners and doesn’t choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv,” an announcer said on an Iraqi television station. The station is owned by Odai Saddam Hussein, who was quoted by Iraqi media as saying: “The wives and mothers of those Americans who will fight us will weep blood, not tears.” At the United Nations, Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri called Bush’s demands “the law of the jungle” and the coming war “a crime against humanity” that “is tantamount to genocide.” At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer brushed off such criticism and said time was running out for Saddam. “Saddam Hussein has led Iraq to many mistakes in the past, principally by developing weapons of mass destruction,” Fleischer said. “Saddam Hussein, if he doesn’t leave the country, will make his final mistake.” Even if Saddam does flee, he could be prosecuted for war crimes, Fleischer said. Five thousand Kurds in northern Iraq were killed in 1988 by chemical weapons employed by Saddam’s forces. Fleischer said the president spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposes military action in Iraq, and they agreed to continue working together on other matters. “The two of them did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russia relations, and they both expressed confidence that it would, indeed, happen,” said Fleischer, who again refused to disclose how much the war might cost. Members of Congress have estimated the cost at $80 billion or more. Secretary of State Colin Powell said 30 nations have joined with the United States and 15 other nations have offered support more quietly. “We now have a coalition of the willing,” he said. The State Department identified the 30 nations as: Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan (post conflict), South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan. Still, the United States and Britain have contributed nearly all of the combat forces. At least 250,000 U.S. troops and 45,000 British troops were in the war theater, and they spent Tuesday reviewing attack plans. “There’s a sense of sadness because war is always tragedy, and there are always going to be a lot of people hurt by this,” said Air Force Capt. Dan King, a pilot with the 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “But everybody believes what the president is doing is the right thing.” That was not the case elsewhere. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared again before Parliament and pleaded for support from his splintered nation and rebellious party. “Back away from this confrontation now and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating in their effects,” he told the House of Commons. In the end, Parliament effectively approved military action, voting 412 to 149 to use “all means necessary” to disarm Iraq. But Blair again suffered rebellion in his own party. Of 410 Labor Party members of parliament, 136 voted for an anti-war amendment _ 14 more than the number of Labor members who opposed their leader during a war debate and vote last month. The symbolic votes have no bearing on whether Blair can commit British troops to war _ he has said that he will _ but they pointed to a continuing split that the crisis has brought to his ruling party. In Turkey, a measure of good news arrived when northern Iraqi opposition groups agreed that U.S.-led forces would take responsibility for all security in the major northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the event of conflict. That _ at least for the moment _ quelled fears that Turks, Kurds and possibly Iranians might vie for advantage. Late Tuesday, a spokesman for Turkey’s government said it would ask legislators to vote again on the issue of allowing 62,000 U.S. troops to use Turkish soil as a staging area for a northern invasion of Iraq. The U.N. Security Council, apparently undaunted by its failure to craft a diplomatic solution, prepared to hear again Wednesday from chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. Blix’s report, released Tuesday, includes a list of remaining disarmament tasks, including searches for Scud missiles and biological and chemical warheads and agents. He is expected to say that, had Iraq cooperated, the inspectors could have finished their mission within a few months. U.S. defense officials raised fresh alarms Tuesday about Iraq’s possible use of mustard gas, nerve agents and other weapons of mass destruction. One troublesome sign: Saddam named Gen. Ali Hassan al Majid, nicknamed “Chemical Ali” for his role in Iraq’s 1988 nerve gas attacks on Kurdish civilians, to command the country’s southern defenses. “They have the capability and there has been evidence over the last week that they are making preparations to use chemical weapons,” a Pentagon official said. “What we don’t know is if they will truly use them.” Blix, who has found little evidence of such weapons, said he would “watch with great interest to see” if U.S. and coalition troops confront or discover any prohibited weapons. Readying for war, leaders of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division kept their units close to their base in the Kuwaiti desert _ no more two-day trips to distant shooting ranges. Their heavy equipment, Humvees and artillery were packed for transport to Iraq, so the paratroopers turned to honing skills they might need. Infantry units practiced “room clearing,” techniques using four or five soldiers to seek and kill the enemy. Linguists held sessions on basic Arabic phrases, including this one: “Lie down on your belly!” And medics taught soldiers how to treat battlefield wounds. ___ (Drew Brown, Jessica Guynn, Diego Ibarguen, Tom Infield, Daniel Rubinand Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.