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Iraq vows to avert a showdown

Iraq pledged Tuesday to make "all serious and legitimate" efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis over U.N. weapons inspectors.

A statement issued by Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council said Iraq hopes U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will "come here with an open mind and free will" to conduct negotiations. The Iraqi leadership did not offer any specific concessions that might avert a U.S. military strike.The statement - a clear appeal to Annan not to be influenced by the United States - was issued just before President Clinton was to address the American public to explain the need for a military strike.

"Iraq will exert all serious and legitimate effort to bring the mission of (Annan) to a success in his forthcoming visit to Baghdad," the council's statement said. It said Iraq hopes Annan will be "in a situation that will enable him to reach a balanced political solution."

With more U.S. ground troops headed to the Persian Gulf region, Clinton and his foreign policy advisers are trying to persuade Amer-i-cans to support an air attack on Iraq if Saddam doesn't bow to U.S. demands on weapons inspections.

The president's message is that "the United States is prepared to act, and it's now up to Saddam Hussein to end the crisis," press secretary Mike McCurry said Tuesday in Washington. Saddam "could do that by granting the United Nations the access to the sites that they need to see."

Clinton "will make it clear once and for all, one way or another, we are determined to see that Iraq does not pursue weapons of mass destruction," McCurry said.

After spending a long weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat, Clinton was outlining his case against Iraq in a speech to Pentagon brass. On Wednesday, his foreign policy team was to conduct a town hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio.

"We will be increasing the pace of the dialogue both with the American people and the international community so they will understand our determination to see that Iraq complies with United Nations Security Council resolutions," White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China were expected to meet again late Tuesday afternoon. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said they were close to agreement.

"It is very probable that Kofi will go, and go this week," he told London's Talk Radio. "We want to explore every avenue for a solution."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Clinton discussed the Iraqi crisis in a 25-minute phone call Monday night and agreed that a visit to Baghdad by Annan would be helpful, Blair's office said Tuesday.

McCurry said the United States wants to make sure that Annan goes to Iraq "with very clear instructions" from the Security Council. He repeated demands that U.N. inspectors have access to sites throughout Iraq, including those that have been declared off-limits by the government.

Meanwhile, six more U.S. F-117A stealth fighters arrived in Kuwait Tuesday as part of preparations for possible strikes against Iraq, a U.S. embassy official said.

Six of the radar-evading planes have been in Kuwait since November, shortly after the crisis erupted.

The United States has some 18 A-10 tank killer aircraft and six F-16 fighters based in Kuwait. Britain has eight Tornado ground at-tack aircraft also based in Kuwait for possible military action against Iraq.

Bahrain - part of the 1991 gulf war coalition - said Tuesday it will not allow the United States to use the island as a staging area for any air strike on Iraq.

Also Tuesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reiterated his view that diplomacy should be exhausted to persuade Iraq to fulfill the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. "The use of force is the last option and a highly dangerous one," he said.

But Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the United States and its allies are morally right to use military force. "It is in the interests of civilized countries that the sort of conduct of the Iraqi leadership is not allowed to go unchecked," Howard told members of the elite Special Air Services and their families in Perth.