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Aziz's Insistence on Position May Result in U.S. Airstrikes

By Howard Schneider
The Washington Post

With a familiar sense of resignation, Iraqis braced themselves Thursday for possible U.S. airstrikes as Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz insisted that his country will not retreat from its latest confrontation with the United Nations and major Arab states placed the blame for the current crisis squarely on Baghdad.

While the American military buildup in the region continued, Iraqis lined up at gas stations to stockpile fuel, and U.N. workers and foreign diplomats journeyed across 500 miles of desert roads to safety in Amman, Jordan. Mosques usually festooned with brightly colored bulbs were dark Thursday night, as were some government buildings.

At the same time, the United States began deploying 139 heavy bombers and other warplanes to the Persian Gulf, beefing up its forces for possible air action. U.S. officials said that for a variety of reasons, including the time needed to complete the buildup, military action is not likely for about 10 days, although it could come sooner.

But after eight years of crippling international trade sanctions, many Iraqis seemed almost blase that their country may soon be subjected to the heaviest bombing raids since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The usual caravan of Thursday night wedding parties careered through the city, car horns blaring and trumpet players tooting from the windows. Major shopping streets were lively, well-lit and showed no signs of panic buying.

At a sometimes testy press conference Thursday night, Aziz blamed Washington for the current standoff and declared that Iraq will not yield on its demand for the lifting of international trade sanctions in exchange for allowing resumption of U.N. weapons inspections here. "I'm on the receiving side, not on the offering side" of any new proposals to resolve the dispute, Aziz said.

Aziz said, however, that Iraq would welcome the intervention of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who defused a similar crisis over arms inspections during a mission to Baghdad last February. U.N. officials have said that Annan has no plans to retrace his steps to Baghdad.

In another sign that the international community has lost patience with the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein, Egypt, Syria and six Arab Persian Gulf states bluntly called on Iraq to resume cooperation with the U.N. arms inspectors, known collectively as UNSCOM, or suffer the consequences.

"The Iraqi government will be solely responsible for all repercussions resulting from its decision to block UNSCOM from carrying out its inspections transparently," said a statement issued by foreign ministers from the eight Arab states meeting in Doha, Qatar. All eight nations participated in the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, and their statement received a warm welcome in Washington, which has struggled to shore up flagging Arab support for tough action against Baghdad in the face of growing sympathy for the plight of ordinary Iraqis hurt by the sanctions.

While the rest of the world may puzzle over Iraq's continued defiance of the international community government officials here say they have nothing left to lose.