Iraq’s defiance of the United States grew more intense Saturday when a newspaper owned by Saddam Hussein’s son called for Arab commando assaults on U.S. and British embassies and warships, while the government again threatened to fire on a U-2 surveillance flight, expected to take place today.
The threats came as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on a round-the-world trip, announced she will launch a major diplomatic push today, with a lightning swing through four Persian Gulf states most vulnerable to attack from Iraq.
In the aftermath of Iraq’s expulsion of six American weapons inspectors from the country and the United States’ order Friday sending a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf region, Washington and Baghdad jockeyed for diplomatic advantage while noisily making preparations for possible armed confrontation.
“If a U-2 plane is going to fly over us, we will be obliged to defend our security … which indicates we are going to shoot such planes,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf declared at a news conference in Baghdad. He said he expects the U-2 to try to photograph troop deployments and anti-aircraft defenses in advance of the “American aggression.”
Earlier, Sahaf accused the Clinton administration of aiming to topple Hussein and replace him with a compliant pro-American Iraqi government. “They seek this and nothing else,” he said.
On Albright’s one-day gulf tour, she will stop in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and then Kuwait, where Baghdad’s 1990 invasion resulted in the now-7-year-old confrontation between the United States and Iraq.
As Albright made her travel plans, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz - fresh from failing to win concessions for Iraq at the United Nations - also put together an itinerary to try to rally support within the Arab world for easing U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
He was scheduled to leave Paris today for an openended diplomatic tour expected to take in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and possibly a meeting with officials of the 22-member Arab League.
Although Sahaf denied at his news conference that Iraq has gone onto a “war footing” and said he would appreciate any Arab attempts to mediate the dispute, the Iraqi government has taken many emergency steps. Those moves include rationing gasoline, ordering troops to bases, asking for volunteers to join elite military units and sending thousands of civilian “human shields” to camp out at presidential palaces and other likely targets of any U.S. attacks.
Saturday’s front-page editorial of Babel, a newspaper owned by Uday Hussein, urged Arabs to go on the offensive against the two main Western powers that are ranged against Hussein.
“American and British interests, embassies and naval ships … in the Arab region should be targets of military operations and ‘fedayeen’ (commando) attacks by Arab political forces,” said the paper, which is not an official organ but often expresses the government’s viewpoint.
Albright, on a stop in Bern, Switzerland, blasted Iraq for the editorial.
“Saddam Hussein knows what he has to do … and threatening us or anyone else is not the answer,” she told a news conference after talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. “It’s highly irresponsible of him to make those kinds of calls when what he ought to be doing is responding to the legitimate call of the international community as stated through a series of Security Council resolutions.”
In a strong indication of how the situation has changed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Arafat called for “international resolve to be respected” in the crisis, which began when Baghdad refused to allow American weapons inspectors to carry out their work. Pressed on how he, as an Arab leader, reacted to the Babel appeal, he said he backs efforts to “solve peacefully this very important and dangerous situation.”
Arafat was among the few Arab leaders to stand behind Hussein during Operation Desert Storm, a move that backfired on him politically in the outside world and cost him millions in financial support from Arab gulf states.
The gulf showdown has absorbed an increasing amount of Albright’s schedule. For the second time in two days, she has changed her plans because of tensions with Iraq.
Albright will diverge from her scheduled itinerary after giving a speech in Doha, Qatar, at the annual Middle East economic conference. Albright’s 10-day trip, which is scheduled to take her next through three countries in South Asia, may also feature other detours as she intensifies diplomatic efforts to rally support for a tougher international stance against Hussein.
In a demonstration of U.S. resolve, President Clinton on Friday ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington and its battle group to the Persian Gulf to join the Nimitz and its armada. Britain also has ordered an aircraft carrier to the region.
Clinton spoke on the telephone Saturday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the leaders agreed to try to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Iraq.
According to a senior official, the United States and Britain are not on the verge of military action against Iraq. But he did not rule out the use of force in the future if efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution fail.