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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Saddam Hussein welcomed Christmas with an angry speech saying Iraqis were ready for "martyrdom," while U.N. inspectors spent the holiday trying to determine whether the Iraqi president is hiding nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Inspections took U.N. teams to a gas laboratory and a grain storage area in al-Taji, a vast complex that has attracted U.N. attention in the past. The International Atomic Energy Agency has linked al-Taji to Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
In an address read by a state television announcer to mark Christmas Eve, Saddam again rejected U.S. and British claims that his regime possesses weapons of mass destruction. He also said he wanted to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.
"We are confident that the outcome of the inspection operations will be a big shock to the United States and will expose all the American lies if things remain on a technical and professional course with no hidden agendas," he said.
Saddam said the world was entering a new year "under unique circumstances ... which have been manufactured by the forces of evil and darkness in order to create a situation of instability, chaos and tension."
Saddam said the United States and its Zionist ally -- meaning Israel -- were bent on waging war against Iraq in a first step to spread their "hegemony ... across the world and control fortunes and future" of other countries.
"As much as Iraq loves life, its people are ready for martyrdom in the defense of its land and air space, its sanctities and future," Saddam's statement said.
"The road to deter the injustice, aggression and wickedness of the evil-minded is the road of jihad (holy war) and struggle," the statement said.
While Saddam spoke of war, about 120 people, including Iraqi Christians and American peace activists, prayed for peace at St. Rafael's Catholic Church in downtown Baghdad on Christmas Eve.
With fears building that America will wage war on Iraq, members of the U.S. and British-based Iraq Peace Team have traveled to Baghdad to call for a peaceful solution to the crisis and the lifting of harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.
"Of course I'm afraid, but I'll pray for peace," 12-year-old Zeina Shamuel told The Associated Press at St. Rafael's as worshippers sang in Arabic: "The people living in the night, will see the long awaited light."
Christians represent about 5 percent of Iraq's 22 million population and live mainly in Baghdad and the north. Iraq is predominantly Muslim and officially secular.
At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II called for people from all religions to work in the Middle East "to extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided."
Although he didn't specifically mention Iraq, his remarks echoed anti-war comments in recent days by top Roman Catholic officials. The Vatican fears a war on Iraq could unleash an anti-Christian crusade in the Muslim world.
The United States and Britain have threatened war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq's most comprehensive attempt to rebut claims it has nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, a declaration to the United Nations earlier this month, has been dismissed as pages of lies by London and Washington. The top U.N. inspector has said it is largely a rehash of old information.
An Iraqi scientist interviewed by U.N. inspectors Tuesday said Baghdad is not hiding any weapons of mass destruction.
Sabah Abdel-Nour, who worked in a nuclear program Iraq says is now closed down, refused to be quizzed in private, telling U.N. inspectors that he wanted Iraqi officials present during the interview.
Speaking to reporters later at Baghdad's University of Technology, where he is a professor, Abdel-Nour said the U.N. inspectors were objective and friendly and their "questions were mainly about what has been done or any progress which has been achieved in Iraq since 1998."
Wednesday, inspectors were back at al-Taji, which they have visited at least twice earlier this month. On Dec. 16, a team examining Iraq's ballistic missile capabilities went to the al-Taji fiberglass production plant, which has become part of the Thaat Al Sawary plant. On Dec. 19, inspectors went to al-Hareth in al-Taji, a site that Iraq maintains is a food warehouse but U.S. officials have claimed may be a biological weapons facility.
Abdel-Razaq Abdel-Sattar Ahmed, a director at the liquid gas factory inspectors visited Wednesday, told reporters biological experts checked a building to make sure it was "not used for prohibited purposes." Ahmed said that the site was inspected three times before 1998.
In its report on inspections in Iraq in the 1990s, the International Atomic Energy Agency said al-Taji was the planned site of a gas centrifuge program used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
The previous round of U.N. inspections in the 1990s led to destruction of tons of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, and to dismantlement of Iraq's program to try to build atomic bombs. That monitoring regime broke down in 1998 amid U.N.-Iraqi disputes and the inspectors now in Iraq are the first to work here in four years.
Sites visited Wednesday also included the Ibn Al-Haitham Company, identified in a British dossier on Iraq as a chemical weapons site.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)