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Troops gearing for combat

Hours before the deadline set by President Bush, Saddam Hussein gave no sign of yielding to America's demands Wednesday, and U.S. troops rumbled through Kuwaiti sandstorms toward Iraq's border and the brink of war.

In Baghdad, fortified by trenches and sandbags, streets were quieter than usual, with light traffic and some shops shuttered. Saddam ordered residents to stack wood and oil barrels to be set afire in hopes of concealing targets from bombardment.

The deadline set by Bush for Saddam to go into exile was 6 p.m. MST — 4 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad — though White House aides said war wouldn't necessarily begin at that time. In the event of war, the aides said, the president would address the nation from the Oval Office.

Iraq's rubber-stamp parliament rejected the U.S. ultimatum and reaffirmed support for Saddam. The idea that he would flee into exile "is absolutely unthinkable," said Speaker Saadoon Hammadi.

The Persian Gulf state of Bahrain offered Saddam a haven Wednesday, the first such offer to be publicly extended to the embattled Iraqi leader. Arab officials say six non-Arab countries have also offered to take him in.

Just across Iraq's southern border, U.S. and British troops piled ammunition and combat gear into fighting vehicles and broke camp, ready to invade on short notice. One major deployment involved the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division — its 20,000 soldiers and thousands of vehicles were ordered to positions close to the border.

In all, about 300,000 troops were within striking distance of Iraq, backed by more than 1,000 warplanes. A strong sandstorm swept in Wednesday, affecting several units, hampering movement and visibility.

"We are one day closer to making history," Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, told his officers at a briefing Wednesday morning.

Increased air activity from helicopters and jets could be heard near the Kuwait-Iraq border. One company commander in the Kuwaiti desert led his troops in a Seminole war dance, and ordered them to remove American flags from their tanks because "we will be entering Iraq as an army of liberation, not domination."

Meanwhile, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean, combat pilots and others were ordered to snooze through the day Wednesday so they could work through the night.

"It's time for us to do what we were trained to do," said Lt. Matt Arnold, 33, of Virginia Beach, Va.

Dozens of members of Saddam's Baath Party, armed with Kalashnikovs, deployed in clusters of fours and fives across Baghdad. Some stood behind the hundreds of sandbagged fighting positions that have been erected around the capital over the past two weeks.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf accused U.S. officials of lying to their troops about the losses they would suffer. The notion that invading Iraq "will be like a picnic" is "a stupid idea," he said.

Though U.S. defense officials hope for a quick victory, with minimal casualties on both sides, they raised the possibility that Iraq would use chemical weapons. Pentagon officials said intelligence reports suggest Saddam has given field commanders authority to use such weapons.

The top American general in Kuwait, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, said such an action by Iraq would be "a hugely bad choice."

Around the globe, governments tried to adjust to the seeming inevitability of war.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a special Cabinet meeting that his nation is "100 percent" prepared for an Iraqi attack. The military completed a call-up of 11,000 reservists, while citizens sealed rooms in their homes in case of a chemical or biological attack.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blamed Iraq for the impending war, though he said international forces had to be mindful of the "dangerous repercussions" the invasion could have on the Middle East.

In Turkey, the government said it would ask Parliament on Thursday to let U.S. planes use Turkish airspace in the event of war but would not immediately seek approval for the entry of American troops. Last month, Turkish lawmakers rebuffed a proposal to let in tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to open a northern front against Iraq.

The Bush administration says 30 nations have joined the "coalition of the willing" backing a war to topple Saddam, with 15 more nations quietly pledging support. However, several of the 30 nations have ruled out contributing combat troops.

Confident that Saddam will be overthrown swiftly, the United States and Britain are working on a plan to use Iraqi oil proceeds from a $40 billion U.N.-controlled account to pay for humanitarian relief during a war.

The proposal is to be presented soon after war begins, diplomats and U.N. officials told The Associated Press. The plan would alleviate U.S. and British financial responsibilities for caring for millions of Iraqis likely to be affected by the war.