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Iraq unfazed by war buildup

Leaders in region urge Saddam to avoid a war

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq shrugged off the U.S. and British military buildup in the Persian Gulf as the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Turkey urged President Saddam Hussein on Sunday to cooperate with the United Nations and avert a war they said would be disastrous for the region.

"Iraqis have grown accustomed to these threats, and these buildups and their ears have become used to the thud of rockets and sound of guns," said Thaer El-Shamari, preacher at the city's Mother of All Battles mosque.

Western military muscle-flexing "doesn't even scare a child," he told The Associated Press. The mosque's name comes from Saddam's title for the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

The state-controlled media, meanwhile, reported that domestic issues, not the threat of war, dominated a meeting of Saddam's Cabinet late Saturday.

Saddam told his ministers that in view of the "difficult situation of the nation," street peddlers would be allowed to continue selling their wares because many families depend on their earnings, newspapers reported.

The show of normalcy came as the United States and Britain accelerated their military buildup in the Gulf in preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq denies it holds such weapons.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed deployment orders that will send about 62,000 more U.S. troops to the Gulf — doubling the current troop strength in the region.

The British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal set sail toward the Gulf on Saturday at the head of the country's biggest naval deployment since the 1982 Falklands War.

The United States should have sufficient forces in place in early February to wage war against Iraq, though the White House says President Bush has not yet decided whether to attack.

News of the military buildup in the Gulf, however, appeared to have little impact on life in Baghdad, a city of 5 million people.

Food markets were busy, students in most colleges were taking their end-of-term exams and the state-run newspapers published their customaryarticles and editorials vowing to defeat the United States should it invade Iraq.

In remarks broadcast Sunday by Iraqi television, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said his nation was undisturbed by U.S. threats.

"What the evil American administration is doing is not a war between two sides with outstanding problems but a brutal aggression and a threat to the integrity, unity and sovereignty of Iraq," he said while meeting with Turkish journalists.

In separate comments published in the government newspaper Al-Jumhuriya, Ramadan repeated charges made by Saddam last week that the U.N. weapons inspectors were spies.

"They are carrying out intelligence work. We know that and everyone else knows that," Ramadan said.

However, leaders of pro-Western countries in the region warned Sunday that a new war would inflame the volatile Middle East. They urged Iraq to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors to avoid conflict.

"If war breaks out, God forbid, it will be a big problem," Jordan's King Abdullah II told the official Jordanian news agency Petra. "Nobody can predict the dimension of the tragedy it will have whether on the Iraqi people or the whole region."

In the Iranian capital Tehran, Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said all countries in the region should work to avert a new war.

"Otherwise, all the Middle East and Arab states will suffer heavy losses," he said during his tour of Middle East nations.

"Both Iran and Turkey believe that Iraq must implement all U.N. Security Council resolutions unconditionally in order not to give any pretext for war."

Turkey is the only Muslim member of NATO and the United States is its closest ally. However, opinion surveys show strong public opposition to the war.

Turkey has granted Washington permission to inspect Turkish ports and air bases ahead of a possible war but has not signed off on a U.S. request to permit ground forces on Turkish soil.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak said a war in Iraq "will have horrible repercussions." He urged Saddam to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors to spare his people further suffering.

Meanwhile, U.N. inspectors Sunday revisited the Al Mutasim missile plant 55 miles west of Baghdad, where final assembly of Ababil and Al Fath missiles is carried out. The United Nations has barred Iraq from keeping missiles with ranges beyond 90 miles.