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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Baghdad Proposes Talks if U.S. Backs Off

Washington dismisses an overture by Iraq's vice president. Meanwhile, U.N. aid workers continue leaving the nation.

February 22, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Faced with a mounting threat of war, a member of President Saddam Hussein's government raised anew Friday night the possibility of a direct dialogue between Iraq and the United States.

Whether the remarks by Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan constituted a serious proposal for negotiations with President Bush or were meant to convey merely a general willingness to talk with any nation -- Israel excluded -- the offer seemed unlikely to gather any immediate steam.

Iraq has put out other feelers since the Persian Gulf War ended 12 years ago about trying to repair relations with Washington, but the U.S. position has been that it will not deal with Baghdad directly as long as Hussein remains in power.

On Friday, Deputy White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed the Iraqi overture as not serious.

"Dialogue is one thing, disarmament is another, and our focus is on disarmament," McClellan said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush was at his ranch.

Ramadan made his statement during an interview broadcast by Al Shabab Television, a station owned by Hussein's elder son, Uday.

The vice president said Iraq stands "ready for a dialogue with the American administration and ready to build economic relations," but he suggested that any such discussion could come about only if the U.S. stood down from its military buildup.

"If they abandon aggression, and there is a dialogue that leads to normal relations [and] achieves mutual interests far from interference in internal affairs, then we would have no objection," Ramadan said.

In a sign that international agencies are readying for a possible war, hundreds of humanitarian aid workers have been quietly leaving Iraq in recent weeks, U.N. officials revealed Friday.

Representatives of the United Nations were careful to say that the exodus has not been an "evacuation" and that the departures are taking place voluntarily.

U.N. officials wish to avoid any implication that they consider a war in Iraq inevitable and are therefore winding down the organization's extensive operations here.

Chris Beekman, spokesman for UNICEF here, said staff members who have been outside Iraq for training, vacations or other purposes are being told not to return for now. He said he couldn't give the exact number of workers involved.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the organization decided in early February that any staff members who wished to leave Iraq could do so.

U.N. sources estimate that about 460 out of 920 U.N. staff members in Iraq have taken advantage of the offer.

In addition to regular U.N. staff, about 100 weapons inspectors are in Iraq. Their number has fluctuated between 90 and 110 in recent weeks, and they also have been given the option of leaving Iraq if they feel unsafe, spokesman Hiro Ueki told reporters this week.

A U.N. official quoted by Associated Press said the decision to keep staff out of the country was a practical measure to make the organization more nimble in case the situation in Iraq swiftly deteriorates.

"If suddenly we have to evacuate 1,000 people, it's complicated," the official said. "Evacuating 400 people is less complicated."

U.N. aid agencies have maintained a significant presence in Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, helping to ease the effects of U.N.-imposed sanctions that began in 1990.

Aside from UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program and the World Food Program run major projects related to humanitarian needs and help carry out the U.N. "oil-for-food" program, which provides most Iraqis with the bulk of their diets.

U.N. officials have warned that a war would force them to suspend activities, putting millions of Iraqis at risk because food supplies and humanitarian assistance would be interrupted.

To blunt the impact on ordinary Iraqis, Baghdad has distributed six months' worth of food rations, Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh said this week.

"During any aggression on Iraq, we will provide," he pledged.

The comment came amid signs that the United States and Britain are finalizing military preparations as they prepare to introduce a new resolution at the U.N. Security Council alleging that Iraq remains in "material breach" of past resolutions demanding that it disarm.

At Friday prayers in Baghdad, worshipers were told to get ready to resist the "infidel invaders."

"Oh God, crush their forces, down their planes, sink their ships, and shake the earth below their feet," said Abdul Razzaq Sadi, a speaker at the Mother of All Battles Mosque outside Baghdad, which was named for the appellation given by the government here to the Gulf War.

Bakr Samarei, who spoke at Baghdad's Abdel Qader Kilani Mosque, said: "You are the nucleus of Islam, and you are requested at this moment, at this hour, to sacrifice yourselves in the name of God -- not as suicide bombers, but as fighters."

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