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Last Updated:  Monday, 17 March, 2003, 14:44 GMT
Inspectors urged to leave Iraq
People in Baghdad buying food on Sunday evening
People in Baghdad are stocking up
UN weapons inspectors say they have been warned by the United States to start leaving Iraq in what is seen as the clearest sign yet that war is imminent.

Several countries announced the closure of embassies in Iraq on Monday, while others ordered non-essential diplomats and other staff to leave the region.

Only hours earlier, US President George W Bush set a fresh deadline for the UN Security Council to sanction the use of force to disarm Iraq.

But despite the renewed pressure, there are no signs so far that either France or Russia - which have both threatened to use their veto - intend to change tack.

France cannot accept the resolution on the table that lays down an ultimatum. I do not see how this resolution can be envisaged
French Foreign Minister
Dominique de Villepin

President Bush declared Monday would see the "moment of truth for the world", as he issued the deadline at a summit with the UK and Spanish prime ministers.

The departure of UN weapons inspectors is to be discussed at a closed meeting of the Security Council, which is about to begin in New York, which is also to tackle the new resolution.

However BBC Diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason says it is hard to see the final Security Council discussions being anything more than going through the motions.

The only uncertainty is whether the resolution will be put to a vote, but the chances are that - with defeat almost inevitable - it will not be, our correspondent says.

White House officials suggest that if it quickly becomes obvious that no progress can be made, President Bush could address the American people on Monday night.

The speech will not be an immediate declaration of war, but it will give Saddam Hussein only a few further hours to leave Iraq or face an attack, according to the BBC's Justin Webb in Washington.

    In other developments:

  • The UK Government's most senior legal adviser says military action against Iraq is authorised under existing UN Security Council resolutions.

  • UN observers monitoring Kuwait-Iraq border pull out.

  • Russia tells its nationals to leave Iraq.

  • China begins to evacuate its embassy in Baghdad; other countries say they are closing their missions.

  • The US orders non-essential diplomats out of Kuwait, Israel and Syria.

  • The UK tells all Britons, except diplomatic staff, to leave Kuwait.

'No order'

"Late last night... I was advised by the US Government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad," the UN's chief nuclear weapons inspector Mohammed ElBaradei said on Monday.

Similar advice had been given to the chemical and biological weapons inspectors led by Dr Hans Blix, Mr ElBaradei told a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors in Vienna.

Weapons inspectors on their way to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's heartland, on Monday

A UN spokesman in Baghdad was quoted as saying no order to evacuate the inspectors had so far been received.

Ahead of the Security Council meeting, the French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin once again said a second resolution was unacceptable.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin - who has recently avoided public comments on the subject of a veto - said anything but a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis would be a mistake with serious consequences.

China - another veto-wielding opponent of military action - remained adamant on Monday that the Iraq issue should resolved through the UN.

Against the backdrop of last-ditch diplomacy, Mr Blix has been working on a programme to submit to the Security Council on how to complete the disarmament process in Iraq.

President Bush's ultimatum provoked a defiant response from Iraqi leaders and correspondents in the capital report that most people believe that war is imminent.

The BBC's Rageh Omar says that despite an appearance of everyday normality, there is an unmistakeable sense of heightened anxiety in Baghdad.

Defensive positions are being increased in the city, enormous queues have formed at petrol stations and government ministries are moving out their computers, faxes and other valuables.

President Saddam Hussein appeared prepared for war, warning that if Iraq is attacked the battle will be "wherever there is sky, land and water in the entire world."

And Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabre told an Arabic television station that tens of thousands of Iraqi men and women were ready to be martyrs for any war against the "treacherous" American enemy.

Frustration

US forces in the Gulf now exceed 250,000 personnel and both US and UK forces say they are ready for any military assault.

President George W Bush
Bush may address the American people on Monday
Sunday's meeting in the Azores of US, UK and Spanish leaders - which Iraq has branded a "summit of outlaws" - represented a final push to try to obtain enough support among Security Council members to make a vote on a new resolution worthwhile.

After weeks of diplomatic wrangling, they have only managed to win certain support on the 15-seat Security Council from Bulgaria whereas they need nine sympathetic votes.

At a news conference after Sunday's summit, President Bush made clear his frustration with France's threat to veto a second resolution.

"We have an expression in Texas that says, 'Show your cards'," he said.

"France has shown its card. Now we have to see tomorrow [Monday] what that card meant."


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jim Fish
"It can only be a matter of time before the inspectors are withdrawn"



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