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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 15:46 GMT
Troops poised to attack Iraq
A Baghdad mother tests a gauze mask on her baby
Iraqis are preparing for an attack as best they can
United States-led forces in the Gulf are taking up battle positions for an invasion of Iraq.

Huge convoys have been moving across the Kuwaiti desert towards Iraq, as President George W Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq by 0100 GMT on Thursday approaches.

With about 150,000 US and British troops poised to attack, the Iraqi parliament held an emergency session to flatly reject the US ultimatum, which the BBC's Andrew Gilligan in Baghdad said turned into a rowdy pro-Saddam rally.

But despite the government's defiance, our correspondent says that Baghdad is a city braced for war - electricity supplies are already starting to fail and as night falls people are hunkered in bunkers, waiting.

He will be in front of everyone. He will fight and guide our country to victory
Iraqi parliamentary speaker on Saddam Hussein

Residents have stocked up on emergency supplies, businesses are closed, windows boarded up - the only traffic is large transport lorries, which our correspondent says are used to deploy troops and equipment.

Hospitals have been clearing beds to accommodate casualties from what Saddam Hussein has described as "the last battle".

Pregnant women have been crowding surgeries demanding caesarean operations so they can give birth before any bombing or invasion begins.

First strike

Pentagon officials have indicated that hostilities will begin with an intense air campaign, followed very quickly by soldiers on the ground.

British soldier in Kuwait sandstorm

Heavy artillery and infantry have been moved forward despite a fierce sandstorm in the deserts of northern Kuwait, which has drastically reduced visibility and grounded helicopters.

Colonel Chris Vernon, a spokesman for the British army in Kuwait, told the BBC that some of the 20,000-strong UK forces were now in a position to launch an attack when the order came.

However, the Pentagon has denied a report from Kuwaiti security sources that US troops had passed into the demilitarised zone that straddles the Kuwait-Iraq border.

Officials have told the BBC's Paul Adams at US military headquarters in Qatar that no action will be taken before the deadline has passed, unless the Iraqi forces attack first.

In other developments:

  • Germany expels four Iraqi diplomats for activities considered "incompatible with their diplomatic status".

  • The US military says its aircraft have dropped nearly two million leaflets on Iraq - their biggest drop to date

  • Warplanes from the USS Abraham Lincoln bombed Iraqi positions after coalition aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone were fired on by Iraqi forces, Rear Admiral John Kelly says

  • Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose government has deployed 2,000 troops in the Gulf, says there is "every chance" the US-led assault will begin on Thursday

  • The Turkish Government is asking parliament to allow US planes to use its air space, with a vote expected on Thursday

'Troops deceived'

At its emergency session the Iraqi parliament declared unwavering loyalty to Saddam Hussein.

"We are dedicated to martyrdom in defence of Iraq under your leadership," MPs declared in a message to their president.

A US soldier inspects his truck

The speaker of the parliament, Saadoun Hammadi, said it was "absolutely unthinkable" that the Iraqi leader would go into exile.

Instead "He will be in front of everyone. He will fight and guide our country to victory," he said.

A sentiment echoed by Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf who said Washington was lying to US troops about the number of casualties they can expect.

"To say that invading Iraq will be like a picnic is a stupid idea... they are (sending them to) definite death," he warned.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has said the use of force against Iraq would be a disaster.

"I think political pressure, and even more military pressure, was essential to get the Iraqis to declare and to co-operate," Mr Blix told Radio France International.

"But I think that when pressure is transformed into the use of force, then that's a disaster."

Mr Blix is currently delivering a report to the UN Security Council, listing the key disarmament tasks Iraq has yet to fulfil.

But, with disarmament issues now overtaken by events, correspondents say this is now an academic exercise.

Security Council members, deeply divided over military action, are likely to turn their attention to the humanitarian role of the UN during and after any conflict.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Iraq's Parliament rejected America's ultimatum for Saddam to leave the country"


Defence analyst Dan Goure
"They are going to minimise damage to infrastructure and casualties"



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