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Iraq insists it won't permit U.S. arms inspectors to stay

Iraq accused the United Nations' chief weapons inspector of taking sides and trying to bully the country, and promised Saturday that it will not back down from its latest challenge to the United States.

The State Department has not ruled out military action against Iraq for demanding that Americans leave the team working to ensure that Iraq dismantles its weapons of mass destruction.

Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Saturday that Iraq will fight back if attacked: "Iraqis are used to military attacks."

Last week, Iraq gave the 10 American weapons inspectors in Baghdad a week to leave the country.

On Friday, chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler directed his team, including the Americans, to resume inspections Monday. He had suspended operations Wednesday after Iraq ordered the Americans out.

"All nationalities, members of the team will go to work and remain in Iraq," Butler declared, making it clear the Americans would stay.

Ramadan said he wanted to reply to Butler's comments, "but as he has taken sides, I do not see why I should respond. Butler cannot order Iraq around, nor does he control it."

It was the first time a senior Iraqi official accused Butler of failing to be neutral.

The U.N. disarmament commission must verify that Iraq has eliminated all such weapons before the U.N. Security Council will lift sweeping sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq claims it has destroyed its long-range missiles and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. But the commission told the Security Council in October that Iraq was withholding information.

Ramadan said Iraq would welcome a Security Council envoy to discuss the standoff.

"Our doors are open to whoever wants to come . . . and wants to contribute positively," he said.

The council, which has warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it sticks to its decision, ended its session Friday with diplomats talking of intensive diplomacy over the next few days to try to persuade Iraq to back down.

Britain has urged the Security Council to respond to Iraq "in the strongest possible terms."

"Iraq's action continues to be unacceptable," White House spokesman Barry Toiv, with President Clinton at Amelia Island, said Saturday. "We made it clear last night that Iraq cannot interfere with U.S. monitors."

Meanwhile, about 2,000 people marched through central Baghdad and demonstrated in front of the U.N. Development Program building Saturday.

Protesters shouted slogans like "Down! Down with America!" during the demonstration organized by the government through the state-run Laborers Association.

The U.N. Development Program has nothing to do with the U.N. disarmament commission but is often chosen as a protest venue because of its central location in the city.

An Iraqi government newspaper noted Saturday that Russia and China opposed a military attack and encouraged them to take a more sympathetic line.

"The Russian and Chinese call not to use force must be translated into practical work . . . to push immediately for dialogue and to listen to Iraq's views," al-Jumhuriya said in an editorial.

Companies from Russia, China and France are negotiating oil exploration contracts with Iraq that would take effect once U.N. sanctions are lifted.

The three nations abstained on a Security Council motion last month that criticized Iraq for withholding information from U.N. inspectors and that threatened to impose a travel ban on some Iraqi officials.