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Last Updated:  Friday, 28 February, 2003, 13:54 GMT
Iraq 'to begin missile destruction'
UN inspector and al-Samoud missile
Inspectors say the missiles must start being destroyed on Saturday
Iraqi officials have said they could start destroying their al-Samoud II missiles by Saturday, as demanded by chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The announcement firms up an earlier agreement in principle by Baghdad to destroy the weapons, which the UN has declared in breach of Iraqi obligations on disarmament.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, echoing the sentiments of the Bush administration, has dismissed the Iraqi offer as another example of Baghdad playing games with inspectors.

But French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said it was an important step in the disarmament of Iraq and confirmed that the inspections produced results.

Iraqi anger

In a letter to Mr Blix, Saddam Hussein's scientific adviser said he agreed "in principle" to the destruction of the missiles.

General Amir al-Saadi requested a UN technical team to discuss the "framework and timetable" for the task; deputy executive chairman of the UN inspectors, Demetrius Perricos, is already in Baghdad to oversee the process.

Tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missile powered by liquid fuel
Tested at range of 183 km - in excess of UN 150 km limit
Diameter also in excess of prescribed limit
May be able to deliver biological or chemical warhead

"There will be technical discussions between Unmovic and Iraq on Saturday morning following which the destruction process could start," Hiro Ueki, spokesman for the inspectors, told Reuters news agency.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Baghdad says informed sources in the Iraqi capital said the letter also contained some angry words.

Baghdad complained that the inspectors had ignored the scientific and technical facts about the missile and repeated a demand for more tests on the missiles to determine whether they violate the 150 kilometres (93 miles) range limit set after the 1991 Gulf War.

Despite this protest, our correspondent says the Iraqis concluded that open defiance of Mr Blix was not an option while the UN Security Council is considering the resolution which would trigger a war.

In other developments:

  • The US orders a sixth aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, to the Gulf, where more than 200,000 troops are now posted. B-2 stealth bombers are also being deployed for the first time.

  • President Saddam Hussein tells Iraqis to go into their gardens and start digging air raid shelters.

  • Iraq starts moving major elements of a Republican Guard division south, possibly towards Baghdad or Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, according to US defence officials.

Mr Blair, holding talks with his Spanish counterpart Jose Maria Aznar, declared he knew Baghdad would comply with the UN order before Mr Blix reported to the Security Council on Saturday on progress in Iraq.

"The moment I heard earlier in the week that Saddam Hussein was saying he would not destroy the missiles was the moment I knew that later in the week he would announce, just before Dr Blix reported, that he would indeed destroy these missiles," he told reporters in Madrid.

The BBC has obtained a draft copy of Mr Blix's report - leaked just before Iraq's decision to comply with the UN was made public - in which he says inspections had produced "very limited" results.

Russia veto threat

Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Friday said if needed Moscow will use its UN Security Council veto to preserve "international stability".

"Russia will not support a resolution or resolutions which directly or indirectly open the way towards a power solution of the Iraqi problem," he said in Beijing, where he is holding talks.

The Security Council is bitterly divided over the need for a second resolution saying Iraq has failed to disarm - with permanent, veto-wielding members France and Russia favouring more time for weapons inspections.

Any resolution needs the backing of nine of the 15 Council members and must not be vetoed by any of the five permanent members.

The BBC's Fiona Werge
"Britain and the US dismiss it as typical manouevering by Saddam Hussein"

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