UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration's drive toward war with Iraq grew more complicated yesterday evening when Iraqi officials agreed "in principle" to comply with a U.N. order to begin dismantling scores of prohibited missiles.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix had ordered the destruction of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles to begin by tomorrow. Many diplomats were awaiting Saddam Hussein's response as a test of his willingness to comply with U.N. mandates to disarm.
Though it was not clear that Iraq's acceptance was unconditional, the development seemed likely to strengthen the stand of those, led by France, calling for more U.N. weapons inspections and opposing President Bush's push toward war.
Earlier yesterday, Bush portrayed the missile issue as little more than a distraction.
"The rockets are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The only question at hand is total, complete disarmament, which he is refusing to do."
Meanwhile, Iraq prepared for war, as soldiers dug deep trenches near Baghdad, shielded Hussein's hometown with tanks and elite troops, and otherwise fortified key positions.
"They are digging all over the place," said a U.S. military intelligence official at the Pentagon about the quickening pace of Iraqi defensive preparations.
The official, who requested anonymity, said Hussein began moving his elite Republican Guard troops from northern Iraq into new positions around his hometown of Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.
More than 100 trucks transported tanks and other heavy equipment, the official said, and anti-aircraft artillery was being positioned near the city. Regular army forces considered less loyal will replace the Republican Guard in the north, the official said.
In Baghdad, Iraqis have dug trenches throughout the capital. Some trenches were stocked with ammunition and supplies, the intelligence official said, and others will be filled with oil to generate smoke that could partly blind U.S. laser-guided weapons.
War preparations also continued on the American side:
The Navy announced that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its battle group would leave San Diego on Monday and head toward the Persian Gulf. It would be the seventh carrier sent to the region.
The Air Force also will move B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to a base in Britain and a second British base in the Indian Ocean.
The Pentagon also called up about 100 members of an elite group of Air Force reservists who specialize in rescuing downed flight crews from behind enemy lines. The 920th Rescue Group is based at Patrick Air Force Base in central Florida.
At the United Nations, weapons inspectors said last night that they would "clarify this acceptance" by Iraq.
Blix ordered the missiles dismantled because their range can exceed the 93-mile limit set by the United Nations after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
In a related development, Blix delivered a written assessment yesterday that said Iraq was demonstrating more cooperation than in the past but still was not fully complying with mandates to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. The report is expected to go to the U.N. Security Council today.
The report offers a chronology of disarmament efforts during the past three months and repeats what Blix has said recently. "The process side is good, where the substance side is not so good," said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for Blix. "It clearly reflects both of those things."
At the same time, little progress was evident in the Bush administration's efforts to win support on the 15-member Security Council for a new U.S.-British-Spanish resolution that would implicitly authorize war.
After three hours of closed talks, frustrated diplomats said the council seemed stuck. They described the atmosphere as tense and discordant.
Early today in Beijing, Russia's foreign minister said it was ready to veto the resolution authorizing war if such a step is necessary to preserve "international stability."
"Russia has the right to a veto in the U.N. Security Council and will use it if it is necessary in the interests of international stability," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said.
The foreign minister's comments came a day after China and Russia issued a joint declaration saying war with Iraq "can and should be avoided" and appealing for more time for U.N. weapons inspectors there.
France, Russia and Germany are pushing a plan to continue weapons inspections for four more months.
"Of course, if you use the veto power you should fully understand the responsibilities of it before using it. It can only be used for international peace and stability," Ivanov said. "At the same time Russia will not be in favor of any new resolution which allows the use of military force directly or indirectly to solve the Iraqi issue."
In other developments:
Another hitch developed in the Pentagon's plan to use southern Turkey as a staging area for a U.S. attack across Iraq's northern border. Turkey's Parliament delayed a vote on the issue, suggesting that supporters were having difficulty mustering enough votes.
Jordan announced that it will not allow British planes to land and refuel within its borders during a war with Iraq. Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq, has said it will not allow the United States to launch attacks from within its borders.
Secretary of State Colin L Powell, who spoke yesterday by phone with Secretary General Amr Moussa of the Arab League, said Arab and European leaders should tell Hussein "it might be in his best interest to step down and get out of the way and let some responsible leadership take over. ... "