U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Baghdad Friday for a last try at averting a U.S. attack in the crisis over U.N weapons inspections. He called the mission "a sacred duty in search of a peaceful solution."
Annan declared himself "reasonably optimistic" about his peace mission, which started with Iraqi officials greeting his private plane at Saddam International Airport on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital."I hope I will leave Baghdad with a package that is acceptable to all," Annan said.
Standing by his side in an olive green military uniform, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said he shared Ann-an's optimism and pledged "constructive discussion. What Iraq wants is a balanced and fair solution," Aziz said.
Annan was scheduled to talk with Aziz and Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf on Saturday and planned to meet with President Saddam Hussein at some point.
Earlier, in Paris, Annan said he was not carrying any ultimatum but certain proposals that he hoped Saddam would accept to avoid a military strike.
Hours before he arrived, an Iraqi government cleric cautioned that Annan should not present a peace formula so unacceptable that it gives the United States an excuse to strike Iraq.
"We need words that will meet all our demands," a top government cleric, Sheik Abdul Latif Humaim, said in a nationally televised sermon following Friday prayers.
"We do not want the initiative to be a justification for a military strike," Humaim said.
In a related development, U.N. weapons inspectors accompanied a three-man team of cartographers to some presidential sites Friday "with the full cooperation of Iraqi authorities," a senior U.N. official said.
The visit did not amount to any concession by the Iraqis: The official indicated that no real inspection was done. "I don't think we are trying to pretend this solves the basic dispute," said the official, insisting on anonymity. Still, this was the first time inspectors have entered presidential compounds since the dispute began last fall.
The United States, meanwhile, is expected to urge U.S. government dependants in Kuwait, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to leave those areas until the conflict with Iraq is resolved, officials told Reuters Friday.
The American families are not being ordered to leave but "if they want to leave they can and the government pays their way," one official said.
With diplomats trying to avert military action, Pentagon officials are weighing whether to speed up plans to vaccinate U.S. troops against the deadly germ warfare agent anthrax.
The anthrax vaccine was given to more than one-quarter of U.S. forces who served in the Persian Gulf War. In December, the Defense Department announced plans to start inoculating 100,000 military personnel deployed to high-threat areas. Eventually all 2.4 million U.S. military personnel are to be vaccinated.
The inoculation program was to begin as early as this summer, but Pentagon spokes-man Kenneth Bacon told reporters Thursday that the inoculation program may be accelerated.
An Army official elaborated: "Our troops have protective clothing and gas masks to block chemical and biological weapons. The Defense Department is considering accelerating the anthrax inoculation program announced late last year to provide a prudent extra layer of protection for our troops in the Persian Gulf theater."
President Clinton said Thursday he had made no decision on setting a deadline for Saddam to allow unrestricted inspections by U.N. teams looking for evidence of chemical and biological weapons.
But on the eve of Annan's trip to Baghdad, Clinton ordered his national security team to postpone overseas travel.
"We hope the secretary-general's mission will succeed," Clinton told reporters at the White House. "But let me be clear: If diplomacy fails, we must be and we are prepared to act."
Clinton said most Americans support his policy, an assertion backed up by a new poll Friday that found that 63 percent of Americans surveyed said they would support dropping bombs on Iraq if it continues interfering with U.N. weapons inspectors. And 56 percent would go even further, saying the United States should try to force Saddam from power.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,026 adults was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spent Thursday at Tennessee State University and the University of South Carolina laying out the administration's arguments for a possible strike against Iraq. She fared a bit better with the students than she did on Wednesday at Ohio State University, where she faced rowdy hecklers.
In South Carolina, Albright called Saddam "a threat to our national security," who reneged on a pledge after the gulf war to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction.
Army troops currently deployed in the gulf have not been given the anthrax vaccine, according to Rick Sonntag, a spokesman for the Army Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner said he could not disclose whether Marine, Air Force or Navy personnel in the gulf had been vaccinated.
"All I can say is that we're taking all reasonable and prudent force-protection measures," he said.