BAGHDAD - Saddam Hussein announced plans to address the Iraqi nation as a new report Wednesday said U.S. armed forces chiefs were now agreed on using force to oust him.
With nervous Iraqis sensing an attack is becoming ever more inevitable and loyal officials voicing angry defiance, Saddam was to make a "comprehensive national speech" on television on Thursday morning, the Iraqi News Agency (INA) said.
While marking the anniversary of the end of the 1980-88 war with Iran, he may well seek to prepare Iraqis for a new war.
This time it would be against the superpower to which he led them once before to defeat, in the Gulf War of 1991.
That the Americans will come appeared even more likely following the latest media leak in the United States in the battle to influence policy on Iraq. The Washington Times said on Wednesday that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had overcome their differences and had reached a consensus on using military force.
Nearly a week after its surprise offer to discuss the return of United Nations weapons inspectors, Iraq had no immediate response to a letter from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan rejecting the move until he received a "formal invitation."
Bitter remarks about the U.N.'s chief inspector Hans Blix, reported in a newspaper Wednesday, seemed unlikely to further the resolution of Baghdad's dispute with the United Nations.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told United Arab Emirates newspaper al-Bayan that Hans Blix, a Swede, had caved in to "U.S. pressure and blackmail."
A resumption of inspections aimed at stopping Iraq acquiring weapons of mass destruction could increase pressure on the United States from its European and Arab allies not to attack.
There were new signs of division when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, seeking left-wing support to stave off defeat in a September election, warned a strike on Iraq would wreck the coalition behind President Bush's "war on terrorism."
Citing unnamed Bush administration officials, however, the Washington Times said all six of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff now agreed on moving against Saddam. Some had earlier had objections based on concerns about casualties from chemical weapons and the potential for an open-ended occupation of Iraq.
"The chiefs have come over because they can read the handwriting on the wall," the Times quoted an administration official as saying. "Now the senior leadership is on board."
Giving a flavor of the mood among Saddam's loyal elite, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, Saadoun Hammadi, told an extraordinary session on Wednesday: "Threats against Iraq will not intimidate anyone and they are doomed to fail."
"Our people are united, our faith is strong, our means are mobilized and active and our material and spiritual abilities are great," Hammadi added. Parliament also reiterated an offer, already dismissed, for U.S. congressmen to visit Iraq.
On the streets of Baghdad, ordinary people are increasingly convinced that war is inevitable and imminent, although there seems little enthusiasm for a conflict.
"We are not stupid, we hear the drums of war beating in the distance," said Mohammad, a shop owner in the Iraqi capital.
"When the president of the world's only superpower says he wants to do something, he will try to do it. It doesn't mean he'll succeed but he will definitely try to do it," he said.
Bush accuses Saddam of being a menace to the region and has said he is "looking at all options" to deal with him.
But while Bush seems set on a showdown with the leader his father failed to dislodge as president during the Gulf War 11 years ago, an attack on Iraq could prove costly.
IRAQ APPEALS TO BRITAIN
Only Britain, whose planes patrol no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq along with the Americans, seems ready to support Bush's war and Iraq Wednesday appealed to London to stop supporting the U.S. plans for war.
"Nobody supports the United States except Britain," Iraqi representative in London Mudhafar Amin told Reuters.
"If Britain refused to go along with the United States' war against Iraq then I think the American administration would find it very difficult to go ahead."
Other European leaders and many Arab states oppose an attack or are at best lukewarm. NATO-member Turkey worries about the domestic impact and even leaders of the northern Iraqi Kurds, who have little reason to love Saddam, warned Bush not to count on their unconditional support.
But the biggest casualty of a war against Iraq might be Bush's "war on terrorism," which garnered a worldwide consensus following the September 11 attacks.
Schroeder, whose chances of re-election look slim, told Bild newspaper: "This war is not yet won, so I warn against an attack on Iraq. It would be less easily understood as an act of defense and could destroy the international alliance against terror."
European Union leaders agree that Saddam must let U.N. weapons inspectors back
into Iraq unconditionally, but the issue could be divisive for the EU if the United
States and Britain attacked Iraq without a fresh U.N. mandate.
©2002 Reuters Ltd