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Iraq: Bush Says 'Moment of Truth' At Hand For International Community

U.S. President George W. Bush said today is the "moment of truth" for the world on the Iraqi crisis. Bush, who held talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in the Azores yesterday, is due to spend today telephoning world leaders as war appears imminent.

Prague, 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has given the United Nations Security Council a deadline of today to resolve the Iraqi crisis through diplomacy.

Bush, speaking yesterday during a summit in the Azores Islands with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, said the world faces one last chance for diplomacy on Iraq. "We concluded that tomorrow [17 March] is a moment of truth for the world. Many nations have voiced a commitment to peace and security, and now they must demonstrate that commitment to peace and security in the only effective way -- by supporting the immediate and unconditional disarmament of Saddam Hussein," Bush said.

Britain, along with the U.S. and Spain, is co-sponsoring a second UN resolution that gives Iraq a short deadline to disarm or face war. That resolution has remained stalled by bitter disagreement on the Security Council, many of whose members favor giving UN weapons inspectors more time.

Yesterday, Blair echoed Bush's words: "Now we have reached the point of decision, and we make a final appeal for there to be that strong unified message, on behalf of the international community, that lays down a clear ultimatum to Saddam that authorizes force if he continues to defy the will of the whole of the international community set out in [UN Resolution] 1441."

The UN Security Council is due to reconvene in New York for a closed session, starting at 4 p.m. Prague time. But it appears highly unlikely that a breakthrough will be made on passing the resolution.

Speaking ahead of today's session, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow that a U.S.-led war against Iraq would be a serious mistake and that Russia continues to favor a diplomatic solution. "Our position remains unchanged. I am convinced that any other development [than a diplomatic solution of the Iraqi problem] would be a mistake that would entail casualties, which in itself is unacceptable because there is already a lot of suffering, but it would also destabilize to a great degree the whole international situation," Putin said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said a new UN resolution authorizing force against Iraq stands "no chance" of passage in the Security Council. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, for his part, reiterated that Paris could not accept the wording advanced by the United States, Britain and Spain.

Further deepening the diplomatic chasm between Paris and Washington, de Villepin told French radio today that he believes Bush was determined to go to war with Iraq no matter what the UN did. France and Russia are both permanent Security Council members and a "no" vote by either would instantly veto the resolution.

The continued deadlock in the Security Council, according to experts, makes it likely the United States, Spain and Britain will withdraw their resolution -- preferring no UN vote on a war with Iraq to a near-certain veto.

The United States has repeatedly stated that from a legal standpoint, it feels authorized to use force against Iraq as a consequence of Resolution 1441, approved unanimously by the Security Council last November, which warns Baghdad of "serious consequences" if it fails to fully disarm.

In Iraq, President Saddam Hussein said yesterday that if U.S.-led forces invade his country, Iraq will fight back around the world -- "wherever there is sky, land, or water."

Iraqi Information Minister Saeed al-Sahaf, speaking today in Baghdad, denounced the Bush-Blair-Aznar summit and reiterated an invitation to UN weapons inspector chiefs Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei to travel to Baghdad for further talks. "We have invited them [Blix and el-Baradei], and it is up to them. We are sincere, and we will continue to cooperate with them and with the Security Council in order to complete and accomplish the work of the Security Council according to the Resolution 1441," he said.

El-Baradei, who heads the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a statement today saying the IAEA had found "no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq." He said Baghdad has recently improved its cooperation with IAEA inspectors.

But el-Baradei said the U.S. government, in a message last night, had advised him to pull all of his inspectors out of Iraq as soon as possible. El-Baradei said inspectors working under Blix's UNMOVIC mission has received the same message. "I was advised by the United States government to pull out our inspections from Baghdad. Similar advice has been given to the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, UNMOVIC," el-Baradei said.

In a separate development, all 800 UN observers and support staff monitoring the Iraq-Kuwait border are due to leave the demilitarized zone separating both countries later this afternoon.

The United States has ordered nonessential diplomats and their family members to leave Kuwait, Israel, and Syria, and Britain is taking similar measures. Russia has advised its citizens to leave Iraq, and Germany and China shut their embassies in Baghdad.

Blair is due to meet with his cabinet in emergency session at 4 p.m. UTC, while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw will make a statement to the House of Commons at 7 p.m. UTC.

White House officials say Bush is preparing an address to the American people, which could come as early as tonight or tomorrow.