Annan heads to Iraq on peace mission; diplomats evacuate

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Bound for Iraq in a last-chance peace mission, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared Thursday he was “reasonably optimistic” about his chances of ending the weapons-inspection standoff without force.
In case he fails, the United Nations evacuated dozens more aid workers Thursday, and the Polish Embassy — which represents U.S. interests in Iraq — became the first to pull its diplomats out.
Annan stopped in Paris for talks and was to arrive in Baghdad today, after the Security Council approved his mission Wednesday.
Saddam sent a message Thursday to Russian President Boris Yeltsin saying he remains committed to a diplomatic solution, the official Iraqi News Agency reported. Yeltsin has been loudest and bluntest among world leaders in opposing any U.S. use of force to end the crisis.
U.S. preparations for military action intensified, with 750 infantry soldiers arriving in Kuwait — the first contingent of a 3,000-strong ground force to defend Iraq’s smaller neighbor from any retaliation against a U.S. attack.
The Fort Stewart, Ga.-based troops join 25,000 U.S. servicemen and women already in the Gulf region.
The United States already has tanks, artillery and missile launchers outside the Kuwaiti capital, as part of a defense agreement signed after the Gulf War.
In Kuwait, Defense Minister Sheikh Salem Al-Sabah went to the Iraqi border to inspect his forces there. He addressed the troops, bolstering them against any repeat of the 1990 Iraqi invasion.
Iraq pressed ahead in its own defense preparations, training women in small arms as part of an effort to build a huge civilian defense force.