Hussein Decries U.S. but Says He Welcomes U.N. Inspections

B By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

bAGHDAD, Iraq – President Saddam Hussein said Thursday his government will continue to tolerate intrusive U.N. arms inspections with the hope they will disprove American allegations that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, suggesting the intense anger here over a surprise search of one his palaces would not lead Iraq to eject the inspectors.

The Iraqi leader alternated between magnanimous and caustic comments in his first public comments since the inspections began a week ago. In a rambling, seemingly extemporaneous televised address to top government and military officials, he said he will comply with the searches “to keep our people out of harm’s way” in the face of “unjust, arrogant, debased American tyranny.”

Iraqi and U.S. officials alike have criticized the inspectors’ performance in their first week on the job. Saddam’s support for them Thursday – and his avoidance of much of the bellicose rhetoric that often infuses his speeches – appeared to be an attempt, at least in part, to defy American characterizations of him as a dangerous, war-hungry tyrant and instead cast himself as tolerant and peace-minded.

“Some might claim we didn’t give them the proper chance to resist, with tangible evidence, the American allegations that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction during the period of the inspectors’ absence,” Saddam said, according to an English translation of his speech provided by the Information Ministry.

Saddam did not make clear to whom he was referring, but it could have been the inspectors, members of his own inner circle or other Arab leaders, several whom have acquiesced to U.S. requests for support in the event the Bush administration carries through on its threats of war.

“For that reason we shall provide them with such a chance,” Saddam said of the inspectors, who have returned to Iraq after a four-year hiatus. But, he said, “if the weaklings remain weak and the cowardly remain cowards, then we shall take the stand that befits our people, principles and mission.”

Saddam’s speech, delivered to commemorate the first day of the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr ending the month of Ramadan, contrasted sharply with recent criticism not only by President Bush and his spokesman, but also by Saddam’s own senior lieutenants. One of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Taha Yassin Ramadan, accused the U.N. monitors Wednesday night of being U.S. and Israeli spies and of trying to provoke a confrontation by conducting an unannounced inspection of a presidential palace.

“Their work is to spy to serve the CIA and Mossad,” Ramadan, who is known for his fiery barbs, said to a delegation of Egyptian businessmen, evoking language reminiscent of Iraq’s disputes with inspectors in the 1990s.

Ramadan claimed the inspectors went to Sijood Palace hoping the government would refuse them entrance. That could have been interpreted as a “material breach” of the Nov. 8 U.N. resolution that calls for Iraq to relinquish any weapons of mass destruction and mandates unannounced searches of any site in the country. The resolution states that Iraq could face “serious consequences” if it fails to comply.

The resolution includes “several land mines,” Ramadan said, “and the aim is that one of them will go off.”

The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning as “unjustified and unnecessary” the inspectors’ two-hour visit to the palace Tuesday, during which they opened cupboards, closets and even a kitchen refrigerator. And on Thursday, an official Iraqi newspaper said in a front-page editorial that the inspectors were at a “dangerous crossroads.”

“The work of the inspection teams in coming days will reveal the extent to which UNMOVIC and IAEA will hold on to their international identity that dictates they do not submit to the American, British and Zionist pressure and blackmail and be transformed into a spying eye for America and Britain,” the Jumhuriya newspaper said of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the two bodies charged by the U.N. Security Council to conduct the inspections.

Bush and other U.S. officials also have voiced doubts about the inspections, suggesting the searches have not been aggressive enough. On Monday, Bush said he was “not encouraged” by the inspections, and on Wednesday, he said he believes Saddam “is not somebody who looks like he’s interested in complying” with the U.N. resolution.

Disputes have long plagued the inspections process in Iraq. U.N. inspectors first arrived in Iraq in 1991, shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War. They have been credited with destroying tons of chemical and biological weapons and dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program. But the monitoring ended in 1998 amid disputes over the inspectors’ access to Iraqi sites and Iraqi objections that the United States used some of inspectors as spies.

Saddam delivered his speech to top members of his Baath Party and senior military commanders gathered in an ornate hall in one of his Baghdad palaces this morning. As is common here, the address was not broadcast live for security reasons, but it was aired later in the day on national television.

The television footage showed a line of military leaders, in olive uniforms and black berets, lining up to salute Saddam and kiss him on the shoulders. After brief remarks by Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, the Iraqi leader launched into his address. Clad in a gray, double-breasted suit and sitting in an armchair, he spoke for about 30 minutes apparently without notes.

Much of the talk consisted of what have become Saddam’s rhetorical staples: harkening back to Iraq’s past as the cradle of civilization and center of great empires as well as criticism of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Genghis Khan, he said at one point, “did not commit more than what the criminal Zionists are presently doing in Palestine.”

He also took issue with Arab nations – although he did not refer to them specifically – for not being more critical of U.S. policy, accusing them of “plain cowardice.” And he urged Iraqis to be patient in the face of the inspections and American threats, insisting that tolerance would not constitute a retreat but “a reassembly or mobilization of forces to make them act in a new framework and with superiority at a later stage.”

After a week of searches, the inspectors took a break Thursday and plan to do so on Friday as well because of the three-day Eid holiday. On Saturday, Iraq is expected to submit a declaration to the U.N. Security Council specifying any weapons of mass destruction it might possess and outlining its civilian nuclear, chemical and biological programs. Iraqi officials said the document will assert that Iraq no longer has any banned weapons.