Posted by Sadie from ? (126.96.36.199) on Monday, March 17, 2003 at 8:38AM :
March 17, 2003
U.S. Advises UN Weapons Inspectors to Leave Baghdad
by William J. Kole
In the clearest sign yet that war with Iraq is imminent, the United States has advised U.N. weapons inspectors to begin pulling out of Baghdad, the U.N. nuclear agency chief said Monday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the advice was given late Sunday night both to his Vienna-based nuclear agency hunting for atomic weaponry and to the New York-based teams looking for biological and chemical weapons.
"Late last night ... I was advised by the U.S. government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad," ElBaradei told the IAEA's board of governors Monday. He said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council were informed and that the council would take up the issue later Monday.
U.N. officials have said the roughly 60 inspectors and support staff in Iraq could be evacuated in as little as 48 hours.
No one has yet given the order for the inspectors and support staff to begin pulling out. In fact, chief inspector Hans Blix said he planned to present a plan to the Security Council on Tuesday that would extend the inspections regime by several months.
But Blix, asked by reporters at the United Nations whether inspectors would continue their work on Monday, said: "Yes - unless we call them back."
Most of the team's helicopters have left the country because their insurance was canceled, Blix said, and the personnel level is low because of a scheduled rotation home.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the nuclear agency would wait for Security Council guidance later Monday before deciding whether to pull out its inspectors.
The teams, which returned to Iraq on Nov. 27 after a nearly four-year absence, drew up contingency plans to evacuate even before their redeployment.
"A lot depends on the Iraqis," a senior U.N. inspector told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. "If they let us use aircraft to get out, we could be gone in 48 hours or even less. If they won't let us fly out, we would have to drive to a border, and that could mean an eight-hour journey across hot desert. It would take longer, but we would get out."
There have been some concerns that the Iraqis might hold the inspectors as human shields in case of a conflict. But Iraq's foreign minister appeared to play down those fears in a live television interview on the al-Arabiya Arabic satellite channel Sunday night.
"The inspectors came by a decision of the Security Council, which decides on their departure," Naji Sabri said.
ElBaradei told the nuclear agency's 35-nation board Monday that he was worried about the safety of the teams, yet still held out hope that war could be averted.
"Naturally the safety of our staff remains our primary consideration at this difficult time," he said. "I earnestly hope - even at this late hour - that a peaceful resolution of the issue can be achieved, and that the world can be spared a war."
ElBaradei, who has been monitoring the situation day to day, confirmed that he and Blix had received an invitation from the Iraqis "to visit Iraq with a view toward accelerating the implementation of our respective mandates." He did not say whether he or Blix had accepted.
"I should note that in recent weeks, possibly as a result of increasing pressure by the international community, Iraq has been more forthcoming in its cooperation with the IAEA," he said.
But with the United States, Britain and Spain making clear that Monday would be the final day for diplomatic efforts to avert a conflict, it appeared that the inspectors were running out of time and could begin withdrawing at any moment.
In a sign that war could be imminent, the U.S. State Department on Sunday night ordered nonessential personnel and all family members to leave Israel, Kuwait and Syria in a precautionary move.
Germany closed its embassy in Baghdad on Monday after calling on its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately," and Britain advised all its citizens except diplomatic staff to leave Kuwait as soon as possible, citing a potential threat from war in neighboring Iraq.
Inspectors have experience in getting out of Iraq in a hurry: In December 1998, they pulled out on the eve of U.S.-British airstrikes amid allegations that Baghdad was not cooperating with the teams.
© 2003 The Associated Press
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