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U.N. to withdraw Iraq inspectors

Blix has said inspectors would need 24-48 hours to leave Iraq.

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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council on Monday that he is withdrawing weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers from Iraq.

The inspectors are making plans to begin leaving on Tuesday ahead of an expected U.S.-led attack, a U.N. spokesman said.

"Obviously we seen to be at the end of the road here," Annan told reporters. "I have just informed the council that we will withdraw the UNMOVIC and atomic agency inspectors. We will withdraw the U.N. humanitarian workers.

"It's a sad day for everybody. War is always a catastrophe."

Annan said all U.N work in Iraq would be suspended, including the oil-for-food program.

"The implication of these withdrawals is that the (U.N. programs') mandates will be suspended because they are inoperable," he said.

The United States advised the United Nations to remove its weapons inspectors and offered to help ensure their safe passage.

Hans Blix, who leads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), has said inspectors would need 24 to 48 hours to leave the country.

CNN's Rym Brahimi in Baghdad said a plane was standing by at Saddam Hussein International Airport near the Iraqi capital for any evacuation of the 60 inspectors. The inspectors are based in Baghdad and Mosul, in the north of the country.

U.S. officials telephoned Mohamed ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Blix's inspectors late Sunday, saying their safety was at risk.

The United States has promised its reconnaissance planes will keep a "very close eye" on the evacuation flight to ensure they leave the country safely, a senior military official told CNN.

"We would not put it past (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein to shoot the plane down and blame us," the official said.

The U.S. military will have advance knowledge of the aircraft's flight plan and ensure it is followed. The source said there are no plans for a fighter escort at this time and reconnaissance could be conducted from "standoff range" in the southern no-fly zone.

The U.N. has monitored the zone between Kuwait and Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
The U.N. has monitored the zone between Kuwait and Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Inspectors expressed disappointment Monday, saying they had hoped inspections would help lead to a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Saddam invited the two chief inspectors to return to Baghdad on Monday. Speaking on Iraqi television, he reiterated his stance that Iraq once had weapons of mass destruction but has given them up.

But U.S. officials said there is fresh evidence that Iraq is preparing to use chemical weapons in the event of war.

There has been no immediate reaction from the Iraqi government about a pullout by inspectors, but an Iraqi official stressed that the country has cooperated with the Security Council.

Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahaf, Iraqi minister of information, said: "We've done everything and we will continue to cooperate with the Security Council, and with all efforts all over the world in order to avert the aggression against our country, but if they put us with no other alternative we have to defend our country and we will do that."

A senior U.S. military official said that in recent days there has been increased truck convoy traffic between Baghdad and the Syrian border.

This source believed much of the traffic consists of wealthy Iraqis who have packed their personal belongings and are leaving the country.

There is no indication whether the movement involves anyone with Iraq's current regime.

Meanwhile, the remaining U.N. border monitors arrived at Kuwait City on Monday from the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq.

The U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) ordered its staff to evacuate the entire 124-mile DMZ and return to Kuwait City to await possible orders to leave the country.

The U.N. mission was set up after the 1991 Gulf War to keep the peace along the zone.

In recent days, U.S. military activity along the DMZ has been reported, including the cutting of large breaches in the electrified border fence.

-- Correspondents Rym Brahimi, Richard Roth, Barbara Starr and John Bisney contributed to this report

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