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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 25 February, 2003, 21:39 GMT
Saddam insists missiles are legal
UN inspectors drive past a mural of Saddam Hussein
Saddam is openly defying the UN, says Washington
Saddam Hussein has insisted that Iraq does not have missiles that go beyond the permitted range, set after the 1991 Gulf War.

He was speaking to Dan Rather of CBS News, his first TV interview with a US journalist in almost a decade.

Mr Rather said the Iraqi leader thereby indicated that he would defy UN orders to destroy them.

However, a top Iraqi official on Tuesday said the UN's demand was still being studied.

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has told Iraq to begin destroying the medium range al-Samoud II missiles by Saturday.

Saddam Hussein's apparent defiance comes as the Security Council is set for intense consultations over whether to give the go-ahead for military action against Baghdad or allow more time for inspections.

On Monday, the UK, co-sponsored by the US and Spain, submitted a new draft resolution to the Council accusing Iraq of failing to disarm in line with previous resolutions.

28 Feb or soon after: Blix written report to Security Council
1 Mar: Missile destruction must start
Around 7 Mar: Inspectors oral report to Security Council
10 Mar: US-UK will force UN vote on resolution

Their resolution was met by a rival proposal to boost weapons inspections which was backed by France, Germany and Russia.

Both sides have launched a diplomatic drive to secure the support of Council members ahead of a vote on the proposed resolution which is expected in the next two weeks.

In other developments:

  • UK Prime Minister Tony Blair says Saddam Hussein has "one further final chance to disarm", in a key address to Parliament in London where MPs vote on the case for military action on Wednesday

  • Turkey is still negotiating the final details of a US request to station US troops on its territory

  • US and UK warplanes bomb three surface-to-surface missile systems near Mosul in northern Iraq and a surface-to-air missile site near Basra in the south

  • Four US soldiers are killed in Kuwait when their Black Hawk helicopter crashes

TV duel

In the interview with CBS, due to be broadcast in part on Tuesday and in full on Wednesday, Saddam Hussein denies Iraq's al-Samoud II missiles are in violation of UN resolutions.

This is not about debate. This is about disarmament
US spokesman Ari Fleischer
"We do not have missiles that go beyond the proscribed range," Saddam said.

The Iraqi leader also challenged the US president to a live televised debate on the crisis.

"I am ready to conduct a direct dialogue with your president. I will say what I want and he will say what he wants."

He said it would be an opportunity for George W Bush to convince the world of his case for war.

It was an earnest proposal, he said, made out of "my respect for the people of the United States and my respect for the people of Iraq and the people of the world. I call for this because war is not a joke."

A top adviser to the Iraqi president, General Amer al-Saadi, said that Iraq has still not made a decision on the missiles.

"Our stance is still being studied," he said, adding that he could not comment about the CBS interview because he had not seen it.

The White House has dismissed Saddam's offer of a debate out of hand.

"This is not about debate. This is about disarmament and complying with the world's instructions," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Saddam's comments about the al-Samoud missiles, Mr Fleischer said, represented "open defiance" of the UN.

Campaign on waverers

The draft resolution submitted by Britain on Monday says Iraq "has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441" - the resolution passed unanimously in November which restarted weapons inspections.

That resolution warned of "serious consequences" - a diplomatic term for military action - if Iraq did not comply with its demands.

Debate at the UN
For military action: US, UK, Spain and Bulgaria
Sceptics or opposed: France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria
In doubt: Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan
Nine votes and no veto required to pass a resolution

UK Ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who presented the draft resolution to the Council, said the UK wanted a "peaceful answer... but there is not much time left".

He told the BBC this was the "last, last chance".

At least nine members of the Security Council must vote for the draft resolution if it is to be passed.

So far, only Bulgaria has joined the three countries who signed the draft in voicing its support.

The US has launched a campaign to win backing from Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico, Chile, and Pakistan - the members which are still wavering.

Franco-German proposals

In addition, the resolution must not be vetoed by any of the five permanent Council members - US, UK, France, Russia and China - if it is to pass.

France and Germany issued a document on Monday declaring that the "military option should only be a last resort" and "so far, the conditions for using force against Iraq are not fulfilled".

They demanded more intrusive inspections and a "rigorous" schedule of deadlines.

Russia has backed their stance, while China, too, has said diplomacy should be pursued to force Iraq to disarm.

The BBC's Matt Frei
"Saddam spoke to Dan Rather for over three hours"

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