BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United Nations ordered its weapons inspectors out of Iraq on Monday, widening the stream of diplomats and foreign journalists heading for the exits before any shooting starts.
Defiant to the end, Saddam Hussein gave no sign of heeding U.S. demands that he step down. He warned that American forces will find an Iraqi fighter ready to die for his country “behind every rock, tree and wall.’’
But he made a last-minute bid to avert war, admitting that Iraq had once possessed weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from Iran and Israel - but insisting that it no longer has them.
“We are not weapons collectors,’’ the official Iraqi News Agency quoted him as telling Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, who was visiting Baghdad in a last-minute quest to avert war.
“When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says,’’ Saddam said.
His admissions were pushed aside, as President Bush prepared to give Saddam a final ultimatum in a Monday night speech: Leave Iraq or face war.
In advance of the speech, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said Saddam wouldn’t leave. “He will stay in place like a solid rock,’’ he told Qatar-based television broadcaster Al-Jazeera in an interview Monday.
Baghdad residents prepared for the worst, flooding markets to stock up on food, lining up for gas and bread and taping their windows for fear of flying glass from U.S. bombs. Store owners moved their merchandise to the relative safety of warehouses, fearing bombs and looting if a war starts.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that he was ordering all U.N. staff out of Iraq, including 156 inspectors and support staff, humanitarian workers and U.N. observers monitoring the Iraqi-Kuwait border.
U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said inspectors were expected to begin leaving on Tuesday. He denied they were already checking out of their Baghdad hotel Monday night.
Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister, said that while U.N. inspectors were looking “for a white crow,’’ an Arabic expression for something that does not exist, Annan’s decision to pull them out was “regrettable.’’
Other foreigners were already leaving. Pakistan, Germany and the Czech Republic announced they were closing their embassies in Baghdad. India and China evacuated their ambassadors while Greece said it expected to have its embassy staff out within a few days. A Bahrain Foreign Ministry official said the country’s diplomatic staff left quietly over the weekend.
Britain also advised all of its citizens except diplomatic staff to leave neighboring Kuwait as soon as possible, citing a potential threat from Iraq. Finland issued a similar advisory to all its citizens in Kuwait.
The United States had already ordered all government dependents and nonessential staff out of Kuwait, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip; on Monday, it suggested that Americans in Lebanon should consider leaving.
Foreign journalists, including crews from ABC and NBC, were heading out of Baghdad for Jordan. China’s official Xinhua news agency said six Chinese reporters also were leaving.
A week ago, there were 450 foreign journalists in Baghdad. On Monday, there were 300, the Information Ministry said.
In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, residents streamed out of the city of Chamchamal, a mile from Iraqi forces, heading deeper into the relative safety of Kurdish territory protected by U.S.-British air patrols. Cars, buses, tractors and pickup trucks were laden with rugs, suitcases and other belongings.
Nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops are in the Persian Gulf, ready to strike.
U.S. military officers in the Kuwaiti desert issued troops ammunition and showed them photographs of Iraqi soldiers so they could differentiate the different units and ranks. British Royal Marines gathered around portable radios to wait for any news on how soon they may go to war.
Still, U.N. weapons inspections continued Monday, ahead of any evacuation.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the inspectors visited six sites and supervised the destruction by the Iraqis of two more of Iraq’s banned Al Samoud 2 missiles in an area north of Baghdad.