UNITED NATIONS—The Bush administration's drive toward war with Iraq grew more complicated Thursday evening when Iraqi officials agreed "in principle" to comply with a U.N. order to begin dismantling scores of prohibited missiles.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix had ordered the destruction of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles to begin by Saturday. Many diplomats were awaiting Saddam Hussein's response as a test of his willingness to comply with U.N. mandates to disarm.
Though it was not clear that Iraq's acceptance was unconditional, the development seemed likely to strengthen the stand of those, led by France, calling for more U.N. weapons inspections and opposing President Bush's push toward war.
Earlier Thursday, Bush portrayed the missile issue as little more than a distraction.
"The rockets are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The only question at hand is total, complete disarmament, which he is refusing to do."
Independent experts said Saddam would gain politically by complying.
"If Iraq destroys the missiles, public opinion will be affected here and abroad," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
"Clearly, if they destroy the missiles the way Dr. Blix envisioned it, that will be used by opponents of war to justify their claims that inspections are working," agreed Richard Speier, a former senior Pentagon expert on missile proliferation. "However, they really are delivering this a drop at a time. They're not serious about disarming."
Meanwhile Iraq prepared for war, as soldiers dug deep trenches near Baghdad, shielded Saddam's hometown with tanks and elite troops and otherwise fortified key positions.
"They are digging all over the place," said a U.S. military intelligence official at the Pentagon about the quickening pace of Iraqi defensive preparations.
The official, who requested anonymity, said Saddam began moving his elite Republican Guard troops from northern Iraq into new positions around his hometown of Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.
More than 100 trucks transported tanks and other heavy equipment, the official said, and anti-aircraft artillery was being positioned near the city. Regular army forces considered less loyal will replace the Republican Guard in the north, the official said.
In Baghdad, Iraqis have dug trenches throughout the capital. Some trenches were stocked with ammunition and supplies, the intelligence official said, and others will be filled with oil to generate smoke that could partially blind U.S. laser-guided weapons.
"He seems to be concentrating his assets around the crown jewels," said Michael Vickers, a former military officer and CIA operative who is director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
War preparations also continued on the American side:
The Navy announced that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its battle group would leave San Diego on March 3 and head toward the Persian Gulf. It is the seventh carrier sent to the region.
The Air Force also will move B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to a base in Great Britain and a second British base in the Indian Ocean.
The Pentagon also called up about 100 members of an elite group of Air Force reservists who specialize in rescuing downed flight crews from behind enemy lines. The 920th Rescue Group is based at Patrick Air Force Base in central Florida.
Back at the United Nations, weapons inspectors said Thursday night that they would "clarify this acceptance" by Iraq.
Blix ordered the missiles dismantled because their range can exceed the 93-mile limit set by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War.
"They know how to destroy a missile," said Albright, the former U.N. inspector. "You take out the propellant and burn it. If they do systematically destroy the missiles, there will be a call from publics around the world to wait."
In a related development, Blix delivered a written assessment Thursday that said Iraq was demonstrating more cooperation than in the past, but still was not fully complying with mandates to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. The report is expected to go to the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
The report offers a chronology of disarmament efforts over the past three months and essentially repeats what Blix has said recently.
"The process side is good, where the substance side is not so good," said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for Blix. "It clearly reflects both of those things."
At the same time, little progress was evident in the Bush administration's efforts to win support on the 15-member Security Council for a new U.S.-British-Spanish resolution that would implicitly authorize war.
After three hours of closed talks, frustrated diplomats said the council seemed stuck. They described the atmosphere as tense and discordant.
Some members openly criticized the council's veto-bearing permanent members—France, Russia, China, Great Britain and the United States.
"This divided council is in fact throwing the decision on the shoulders of the elected members, while the permanent members stick to their positions," said Chilean Ambassador Gabriel Valdes.
Diplomats from France, Russia and China confirmed that their nations remained committed to expanding the inspections. Syria shares that position.
Bulgaria is the only country that stands firmly behind the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution.
That leaves six countries—Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan—in the middle. Nine affirmative votes, and no veto, are required for passage.
Facing that challenge, Bush and his foreign policy team continued to reach out to council members, as did French President Jacques Chirac, both seeking support.
Bush started his day with an early morning phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, eight time zones away in Moscow. Russia has veto power on the council and Putin opposes any quick moves toward war.
Bush also sent Otto Reich, his special envoy for hemispheric affairs, to Chile for a meeting Friday morning with President Ricardo Lagos.
Countries that oppose the United States may have a lot to lose. When Yemen dissented at the United Nations in the run-up to 1991 Persian Gulf war, the White House retaliated by cutting off $70 million in foreign aid.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. official said French President Jacques Chirac lobbied Cameroon President Paul Biya to oppose the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution, but then advised the African leader that if he was going to go along with the United States, he should not sell his vote cheaply.
The price tag for Cameroon's vote, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity: about $100 million in U.S. aid, loans and loan forgiveness.
Earlier this week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer bristled at suggestions that Bush was using financial incentives to win allies at the United Nations.
"You're saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable," Fleischer said. "And that is not an acceptable proposition."
In other developments:
_Another hitch developed in the Pentagon's plan to use southern Turkey as a staging area for a U.S. attack across Iraq's northern border. Turkey's Parliament delayed a vote on the issue, suggesting that supporters were having difficulty mustering enough votes for passage.
_Jordan announced that it will not allow British planes to land and refuel within its borders during a war with Iraq. Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq, already has said it will not allow the U.S. to launch any attacks from its country.
_Secretary of State Colin Powell, who spoke Thursday by telephone with Secretary General Amr Moussa of the Arab League, said Arab and European leaders should tell Saddam that "it might be in his best interest to step down and get out of the way and let some responsible leadership take over in Baghdad."
The Arab League holds a summit on Saturday in Cairo, Egypt.
(Knight Ridder correspondents vKevin G. Hall, Ron Hutcheson, Tom Infield, Phil Long, Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ