World Braces As The Ultimatum Looms

Mar 18, 2003 11:28 AM EST

WASHINGTON -- With the clock ticking down on the 48-hour deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave the country, the United States and the world are bracing for war -- and the possibility of terrorist retaliation.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was set to hold a news conference Tuesday morning after the U.S. government raised the national terror threat level from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high," as President Bush finished speaking Monday night.

In his address, Bush warned Saddam to leave the country by 4 a.m. Thursday (8 p.m. EST Wednesday) or face military action.

Saying the "danger is clear" that the Iraqi regime would provide terrorists with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, Bush said war would begin "at a time of our choosing" should Saddam not leave Iraq.

Intelligence sources indicate that al Qaeda would probably "attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests claiming they were defending Muslims or the 'Iraqi people' rather than Saddam Hussein's regime," according to a Department of Homeland Security statement.

New York authorities are implementing "Operation Atlas," a plan to bolster security throughout the city, a law enforcement source said. Atlas, which could cost the city more than $5 million per week, will go into full effect should war with Iraq begin, a source said.

The NCAA is considering postponing the start of the men's and women's college basketball tournaments if war breaks out, The Associated Press reports. The first men's game is Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, with the rest of the first round starting Thursday. The women's tournament starts Saturday.

The code orange alert also triggers a series of upgraded security measures at airports and in other public-transport settings as well as at U.S. Coast Guard and other government installations.

Orange is the second-highest level in the nation's five-tiered, color-coded threat alert system.

Exodus from Iraq

The United Nations has started evacuating its expatriate personnel, including dozens of weapons inspectors, from Iraq.

The first group left Saddam International Airport around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday (2:30 a.m. EST), an airport official said, and arrived a short time later in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Before the evacuation began, there were 134 international staffers in Baghdad, including 60 inspectors from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The rest are humanitarian workers.

It was not clear whether the United Nations would evacuate its Iraqi staff.

In northern Iraq, thousands of Iraqi Kurds were leaving key population centers for the countryside, fearing that a U.S.-led attack could lead Saddam to lash out against them.

The refugee agency for the United Nations is making plans to handle 600,000 refugees if a war takes place in Iraq, a monumental task that will require $60 million, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement Tuesday.

Saddam and his son Uday Hussein on Tuesday rejected Bush's ultimatum ordering the family to leave Iraq or face military action. Broadcast on Iraqi television, a statement from the Revolutionary Command Council said the country is ready to confront a U.S.-led attack.

But a U.S. official said that intercepts of Iraqi military radio traffic indicate that a number of Iraqi military units "are not going to hold it together" in the event of invasion.

U.S. military officials said Tuesday that Iraqi Republican Guard military units south of Baghdad may have chemical munitions filled with a form of VX nerve agent as well as mustard gas.

The United States also has indications of sabotage against oil fields in the southern Iraqi region of Rumailah, where a number of wells are spilling oil in the desert, officials said.

World reaction

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a difficult task Tuesday, trying to win the backing of his party for his decision to join the United States in military action against Iraq. Tuesday's debate and vote in the House of Commons comes after senior Cabinet minister Robin Cook resigned, saying he could not support a war without international agreement or domestic support.

Blair's government has asked the House of Commons to support its decision to use "all means necessary" to strip Saddam of any weapons of mass destruction.

Turkey's Cabinet on Tuesday is to discuss a proposal to let U.S. troops attack Iraq from Turkish soil in the event of war, and it is expected to present the matter to the Turkish parliament for a vote Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener said. Lawmakers rejected the measure in a previous vote, denying the United States the chance to base 62,000 troops in Turkey.

France's ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, said Tuesday that his country might re-think its position on war with Iraq if Saddam were to use biological or chemical weapons against coalition forces.

"If Saddam Hussein were to use chemical and biological weapons, this would change the situation completely and immediately for the French government," Jean-David Levitte said.

The Australian government has agreed to commit troops to likely military action against Iraq after a formal request for support from Bush. Prime Minister John Howard told Australian media Tuesday that disarming Iraq was in Australia's best interests and that taking military action now was the right and legal thing to do.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also expressed support Tuesday for U.S. policy but said his country would not commit troops to the fight. "We take this position because we place primary importance on the Japan-U.S. alliance and international cooperation," he said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is not planning a trip to Baghdad, a Moussa spokesman said Tuesday. It was reported earlier that Moussa was headed to Iraq in an unexpected visit. Moussa and the Iraqi government discussed the possibility of such a trip, but Bush's Monday night speech made it "very difficult to implement such a trip," said Hisham Youssef, an Arab League spokesman.

By Albert H. Lee
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