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IRAQ VOWS TO FIGHT WITH CHEMICALS 'OUR RESPONSE WOULD BE OVERWHELMING,' CHENEY SAYS IN WARNING TO SADDAM

An unbending Iraq said Saturday it would use chemical weapons to fight any attack by the U.S.-led military alliance seeking to drive its troops from Kuwait.

Parliamentary Speaker Saadi Mahdi Saleh said the million-strong standing Iraqi army had no nuclear arms but possessed equally effective chemical weapons and would use them.

"We will use all weapons in order not to give our country to the enemy," he said, adding: "Kuwait is our territory."

In a further measure to prepare its people for an attack, Iraq ordered all schools, nurseries and colleges to close the moment war started.

In the Saudi Arabian desert, 50 to 60 miles from Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein against deploying chemical arms.

"I think he knows our response would be overwhelming," said Cheney, standing on a tank as he delivered his warning.

Saddam now has only 24 days to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq if it does not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15.

President Bush said U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf would be ready to strike "10 minutes from now" if Iraq provoked a conflict.

Maintaining his stern daily warnings to Saddam, Bush countered a top Army general's candid acknowledgment that U.S. troops will not be fully combat-ready for perhaps a month after Jan. 15.

"If there was some clear provocation 10 minutes from now, the allied forces are ready to respond vigorously," Bush said in remarks at a news conference at Camp David, Md.

Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, deputy commander of the 288,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, appeared to acknowledge in an interview last week that key army units would not be in place and fully trained until Feb. 15 or later.

Bush met at the presidential retreat with new British Prime Minister John Major to discuss the gulf crisis, Thursday's resignation of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and U.S. trade and political relations with Europe.

British and other European leaders "have no plans to go further" with any talks with Saddam unless he meets the Americans first, Major said, referring to U.S.-Iraqi meetings postponed in a dispute over scheduling. He also rejected the possibility "Arab negotiators" might attempt to bargain with Hussein to avert a war after the Jan. 15 deadline for an Iraqi troop withdrawal.

"There's nothing to negotiate," Major said in a news conference at Andrews Air Force Base before his departure. "It's a question of Saddam Hussein's withdrawing from Kuwait."

Bush said that while he was still hoping for a peaceful resolution, "I am convinced that Saddam Hussein hasn't gotten the message yet, for some odd reason."

Bush also said it would be "nice" to have congressional approval for a military strike against Iraq but he is prepared to proceed without it if force proves the only way to drive Saddam out of Kuwait. His remarks followed a week of talks on the issue of whether Congress should hold a session following its Jan. 3 swearing-in to consider some kind of war resolution.

Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled separately to U.S. units in Saudi Arabia. They observed live-fire exercises, shared field rations with the troops and answered numerous questions about the likelihood of war.

Asked by a sailor aboard the hospital ship Mercy about the conduct and duration of a possible conflict, Cheney replied: "If hostilities start, we want to make it absolutely clear that they will be over just as quickly as possible. There will be no holds barred. . . . The only acceptable outcome will be very swift and very total and absolute victory. We won't settle for anything else."

At the 101st Airborne Division, Powell told a soldier who asked if Saddam might withdraw from Kuwait: "I don't know. I'll let the political leaders figure that out. I hope he does. I'd like to see this thing solved peacefully. . . . But he's proved to be a tough person. He's a very aggressive man."

Cheney and Powell reassured the troops at each stop of strong public support at home and sympathized with their separation from their families during Christmas. Powell in particular was treated as a celebrity and was pressed constantly to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Cheney told members of the 1st Marine Division that the huge U.S. expeditionary force would be prepared to fight "soon" after the Jan. 15 deadline. However, some field commanders endorsed Waller's advice that any offensive be delayed until the full 430,000-man U.S. force is in place and prepared to do battle.

"I'd go along with that," said Brig. Gen. Tom Draude, assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division, as his troops were demonstrating for Cheney how light infantry can stop a tank. "I don't think you should initiate anything as critical as combat until you're as ready as you can be."

In eastern Saudi Arabia, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, visited his country's troops at a forward base and told reporters: "They are highly professional and incredibly well-prepared."

In Qatar, Gulf Arab rulers held their first summit since the Iraqi invasion exposed the vulnerability of their oil-rich countries to military might. The leaders of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the exiled Emir of Kuwait vowed to create a new defense system in the region that would never again allow an aggressor to seize a weaker neighbor as Iraq did.

"Things cannot be allowed to proceed as they were before the event of Aug. 2," said Sheik Khalifa Bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar and host of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

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