Iraq accused the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector of taking sides and trying to bully the country, and promised Saturday that it will not back down from its latest challenge to the United States.
The State Department has not ruled out military action against Iraq for demanding Americans leave the team trying to ensure Iraq dismantles its weapons of mass destruction.
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Saturday that Iraq will fight back if attacked: “Iraqis are used to military attacks.”
Last week, Iraq gave the 10 American weapons inspectors in Baghdad a week to leave the country.
On Friday, chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler directed his team, including the Americans, to resume inspections on Monday. He had suspended operations Wednesday after Iraq ordered the Americans out.
“All nationalities, members of the team will go to work and remain in Iraq,” Butler declared, making it clear the Americans would stay.
Ramadan said he wanted to reply to Butler’s comments, “but as he has taken sides, I do not see why I should respond. Butler cannot order Iraq around, nor does he control it.”
It was the first time a senior Iraqi official accused Butler of failing to be neutral.
The U.N. disarmament commission must verify that Iraq has eliminated all such weapons before the U.N. Security Council will lift sweeping sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq claims it has destroyed its long-range missiles and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. But the commission told the Security Council in October that Iraq was withholding information.
Ramadan said Iraq would welcome a Security Council envoy to discuss the standoff.
“Our doors are open to whoever wants to come … and wants to contribute positively,” he said.
The council, which has warned Iraq of “serious consequences” if it sticks to its decision, ended its session Friday with diplomats talking of intensive diplomacy over the next few days to try to persuade Iraq to back down.
Britain has urged the Security Council to respond to Iraq “in the strongest possible terms.”
“Iraq’s action continues to be unacceptable,” White House spokesman Barry Toiv, with President Clinton at Amelia Island, Fla., said Saturday. “We made it clear last night that Iraq cannot interfere with U.S. monitors.”
In Cairo, Egypt, the top U.S. general in the Persian Gulf said forces there are monitoring the situation with Iraq and are ready to take action if necessary.
“U.S. forces … are always ready,” said Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commands U.S. forces in most of the Middle East.
“The situation in the Gulf is tense even now,” he said. “The possibility that operations could be conducted in our region is very real.”
Zinni spoke as soldiers from the United States and six Gulf War allies concluded weeklong maneuvers in the north Egyptian desert.
About 58,000 soldiers from seven nations, including 18,000 Americans, took part in the “Bright Star” exercises, aimed at improving coordination among coalition forces.
Meanwhile, about 2,000 people marched through central Baghdad and demonstrated in front of the U.N. Development Program building Saturday.
Protesters shouted slogans like “Down! Down with America!” during the demonstration organized by the government through the state-run Labourers Association.
The U.N. Development Program has nothing to do with the U.N. disarmament commission, but is often chosen as a protest venue because of its central location.
An Iraqi government newspaper noted Saturday that Russia and China opposed a military attack and encouraged them to take a more sympathetic line.