The United States has advised the United Nations to pull its weapons inspectors out of Iraq, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said today in the clearest signal to date that war is imminent.

The advice, late last night, followed an ultimatum yesterday from US President George W Bush that the world body had just one more day to give its blessing to a resolution sanctioning the use of force to rid Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction.

With the divided Security Council due to begin consultations at 10am (3am today, NZ time) in New York, France restated a veto threat that is likely to signal the end of diplomacy and a green light for a US-led war.

"Late last night I was advised by the US government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad. Similar advice has been given to UNMOVIC," International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency's board of governors.

He said that he had immediately informed the president of the UN Security Council and asked for guidance. He also informed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. UNMOVIC is a UN agency looking for weapons of mass destruction.

About 135 inspectors remain in Iraq, a UN source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

An UNMOVIC spokesman in Baghdad said they had not yet received an evacuation order. A plane is on standby to whisk them out once the order arrives.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told his military commanders earlier that if Iraq were attacked, it would take the battle anywhere in the world "wherever there is sky, land or water".

Bush's deadline followed a summit yesterday with Britain, Spain and Portugal on an Atlantic island in the Azores.

"We concluded that tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world," he said.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Europe 1 radio: "France cannot accept the resolution that is on the table in New York... which poses an ultimatum and which envisages an automatic use of force."

Russia, which like France holds a veto in the council, also said the US-British-Spanish resolution on use of force "has no chance" of passing. Germany, a council member without a veto, said it could not agree to any resolution legitimising war.

Britain and the United States, who have a 250,000-strong force in or around the Gulf, advised their civilians to leave Kuwait, which is the likely launch pad for an invasion of Iraq.

As conflict loomed, UN observers, who have monitored the Iraq-Kuwait border since the 1991 Gulf War, stopped operations in the demilitarised zone, which invasion forces would have to cross. They said they expected to quit the zone today.

Britain landed some of its seaborne marines on a Kuwaiti beach today after a forecast of violent sandstorms that could hamper an amphibious assault. A British officer, Captain Alan Massey, told his men war could come "within very few days".

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf branded the Azores gathering a "summit of outlaws" and told reporters in Baghdad: "They are in a hurry to carry out a foolish aggression on Iraq but they will fail."

Bush said yesterday the 15-member Security Council had to agree in the next 24 hours on a resolution laying the groundwork for war. He left no doubt that the United States and its allies would otherwise move to invade Iraq without explicit UN backing.

After weeks of trying to get the minimum nine votes for the resolution, Washington has ended up with only one nation, Bulgaria, publicly declaring its support.

France wants a minimum of 30 days for Iraq to meet final disarmament tasks set by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. The Bush administration has rejected that.

Britain yesterday accused France of taking the pressure off Saddam.

"The damage done by this threat of a French veto to the whole diplomatic process has been enormous," Mike O'Brien, a junior minister at the Foreign Office, told BBC radio.

If Paris stands firm, London and Washington are expected to give up on the UN process rather than face humiliating defeat.

Bush is expected to go on television today warning Americans of the coming war and giving UN inspectors and humanitarian workers time to quit Iraq, US officials say.

In Baghdad, Saddam said yesterday it was a "great lie" that Iraq still had banned weapons and branded the United States "the unjust judge of the world."

Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said tens of thousands of "martyrs" were ready to fight Americans.

"When the enemy opens the war on a large scale it should realise that the battle between us will be waged wherever there is sky, earth and water anywhere in the world," Saddam told officers at a meeting reported by the state Iraqi News Agency.

Villepin is considering attending a Security Council meeting tomorrow when Blix is to speak about key tasks for Iraqi disarmament, diplomats say. If he comes other foreign ministers are bound to follow, for the fifth time this year.

Both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar face overwhelming domestic opposition to a war. Blair also faces a potential revolt in his Labour Party if war goes ahead without explicit UN backing.

The resolution before the council has a March 17 deadline for Saddam to scrap or account for any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Britain has offered to put off that date for some days if the measure has a chance of adoption.

If there is no vote on the new resolution, the United States, Britain and their supporters are likely to argue that an invasion is justified by Resolution 1441, adopted on November 8, which threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq did not disarm.

Blix has been invited to Baghdad although diplomats said it was unlikely at this point he would go. He said he was still evaluating the invitation.

- REUTERS

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