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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.S. Advises U.N. Inspectors to Leave Iraq

Aired March 17, 2003 - 06:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: More now on that call for U.N. inspectors to get out of Iraq.
About a half-hour ago, we spoke to the IAEA spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, about the call made by the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELISSA FLEMING, IAEA SPOKESWOMAN: Late last night, Mr. ElBaradei did receive a phone call from U.S. government officials advising him to pull out IAEA inspectors from Baghdad. Similar advice was also given to Mr. Blix from UNMOVIC.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: Weapons inspectors say they don't want to leave; they want to avert war. But that is the suggestion from the United States this morning.

President Saddam Hussein says he is ready to fight the United States anywhere in the world.

We take you live to Baghdad now and our Rym Brahimi.

Rym, first of all, tell us -- you talked to weapons inspectors this morning. Tell us their reaction to the U.S. government's suggestion.

RYM BRAHIMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, I spoke to the spokesman just a short while ago, the spokesman of the U.N. weapons inspectors mission here. He said that they had not received any orders to leave for now.

Now, he also said that they are prepared to leave at any moment, they're prepared for any eventuality, including that of evacuating. They have a plane that's actually staying -- that also always stays overnight at Saddam International Airport, a United Nations plane that's there ready to take them whenever they are given the marching orders.

But they haven't received those orders from the United Nations Security Council or from their headquarters in New York. And that's really key, Carol, because back in 1998 when the previous team of U.N. inspectors withdrew in '98 ahead of U.S. bombings, well, they did so after U.S. guidance before even warning the U.N. Security Council.

Now, this team was, in fact, created almost -- and partly because of that. It's a new team. They take their orders from the U.N. Security Council that's supposed to meet later today, and then they're going to find out whether or not they're evacuating -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Rym Brahimi reporting live from Baghdad -- many thanks to you.

On the phone right now we have Garth Whitty, who is a former weapons inspector. He's live on the phone from London.

Good morning again.

GARTH WHITTY, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Good morning.

COSTELLO: Tell us about the weapons inspectors and their mood right now, you think.

WHITTY: Well, I think they'll be anxious, they'll be frustrated, because they've been doing a job that has begun to yield some progress. But nevertheless, they will be prepared for moving out. So, I think they will be, and no doubt like most other people in the world, that the probability of conflict starting over the next 24 to 48 hours is extremely high.

COSTELLO: Yes, I would say so. You mentioned before when I talked to you a little earlier that the weapons inspectors are prepared psychologically to get out of Iraq. How do they prepare psychologically to do that?

WHITTY: Well, I think like most things. I mean, you prepare psychologically by having thought through what the threats are and what the responses to those threats should be. And we're at our weakest when we haven't considered things, you know, whether it's fire or whether it's having to move because of pending war. And provided everyone has mentally gone through the procedures, they've discussed how they will, in fact, execute their withdrawal, then there shouldn't be a problem on that front at all.

COSTELLO: I think many Americans don't understand the weapons inspectors' frustration, because they think they're making progress, but the U.S. government doesn’t think they are.

WHITTY: Absolutely. But, you know, things are always different when you're on the ground. And on a daily basis, they will have been inching forward in their own minds, even though to the outside world that might not have appeared to have been the case. But certainly with the destruction of the Al Samoud warheads, although it's taken a very long time to achieve full compliance, they are, at least, engaged in removing some of the weapons systems that they were tasked with doing.

COSTELLO: Understand. Garth Whitty, thanks for joining us live from London by phone.

Of course, a plane is standing by waiting to take those weapons inspectors out of Iraq as soon as they need to leave.

We want to go live to the United Nations in New York for more reaction. Our Richard Roth is there.

So, what happens now? The Security Council, how will it act, you know, as far as the weapons inspectors go?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Well, it will be the Secretary-General Kofi Annan that will have to advise the United Nations weapons inspectors what to do, the final word. But Dr. Blix could act on his own with a phone chat with Secretary-General Annan.

There was a lot of controversy in 1998, when then inspector chief Richard Butler pulled out the inspectors without much consultation, except possibly for the U.S. He was fearing for the safety of his people, and indeed there was a U.S. missile attack at the time. But because the inspectors were withdrawn, it took four years, at least, to get them back in.

It's likely that Dr. Blix will be extra cautious before he makes this move. Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency were considering invitations issued this Saturday from Baghdad to go to Iraq. That would seem unlikely if the actual inspector roster is being withdrawn.

The Security Council has consultations scheduled four hours from now. In the afternoon was a planned meeting based upon a request by Germany, Russia and France to give the inspectors more time. And meanwhile, Dr. Blix continues to work on reports that are four years -- were called on by a resolution four years old about his program at work, key disarmament tasks that Iraq must comply with -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Richard Roth reporting live from the United Nations. I know you have a busy day ahead. Many thanks to you.

Having said all of that, more than 225,000 U.S. troops are in the Persian Gulf region now. The Pentagon says it is ready to go when the commander-in-chief gives the order.

Let's get more on those preparations from Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon.

Good morning -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol.

Well, with U.N. weapons inspectors now being advised to leave, U.S. citizens in the region being advised to leave, there are growing indications that war is possibly imminent, officials saying perhaps within the next 24 to 48 hours. We will see a final decision, final orders being issued.

Military air crews in the Persian Gulf are now being put on sleep schedules that will allow them to begin to conduct overnight operations at any time.

But still, this is the greatest period of vulnerability for those U.S. troops in the region. If Saddam Hussein's regime feels cornered, the concern is that the Iraqi regime may lash out, may launch some attacks first. And what the U.S. military is most concerned about, of course, is whether or not the Iraqis begin to operate with their Scud missiles, use chemical or biological weapons, perhaps even set their oil fields on fire.

Sources tell us any one of those three scenarios could lead to an immediate start to military action. They don't think the Iraqis will do it, but they are watching very carefully. Indeed, reconnaissance over Iraq is now constant, and planes are in the air -- U.S. military planes in the air over southern Iraq literally around the clock -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right, Barbara Starr, thanks -- live from the Pentagon.

I just got word of breaking news in my ear. I wasn't really listening to the end of Barbara's report.

We understand that Prime Minister Tony Blair of England will be holding an emergency meeting with his cabinet in what, just a few minutes?

OK, in just a few -- about 10:00 a.m. Eastern our time. Of course, when that happens, well, we'll see what we can do. We'll certainly have a live report out of London to tell you what's happening there.

Also on the phone from Australia, we have Roger Hill, another former weapons inspector.

Roger, good morning.

ROGER HILL, FORMER U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Good morning.

COSTELLO: Does this suggestion from the United States to pull those inspectors out surprise you?

HILL: Look, not at all. I think that that was expected. In fact, I'm surprised it's actually such late notice in a lot of ways, but I guess we've been letting the diplomatic game play out.

COSTELLO: Yes, you know, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei both are frustrated with this. They want the weapons inspectors to stay. They think it's working.

HILL: Yes.

COSTELLO: Could they stay despite the U.S. suggestion that they leave?


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