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Iraq: Tensions With United States Increase

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 12 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions have heightened over Iraq as U.S. planes today again blasted Iraqi air defense positions and Baghdad has stepped up a war of words with its moderate Arab Gulf neighbors.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said a U.S. fighter plane fired a missile at a radar site in northern Iraq's no-fly zone today.

The strike comes just a day after three U.S. warplanes on patrol over northern Iraq attacked Iraqi air defense batteries near the city of Mosul after the U.S. warplanes were illuminated by Iraqi radar. There was no damage to the U.S. aircraft. Today's incident was the sixth such confrontation over northern and southern Iraq since Washington and London concluded intense air strikes against Iraq last month. Those strikes came after Baghdad continued to block some UN arms inspections.

Neil Partrick, a Mideast analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says he believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is deliberately confronting allied warplanes to portray Iraq as a victim of U.S. and British aggression. Partrick spoke with RFE/RL: "Engaging most noticeably last week in a dog fight with American jets is a way of showing that he is still very much in control of the country and that he is able to try and deflect what Iraq will portray and wishes to emphasize is an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. So, he might be seeking to have the coup, as it were, of downing a British or American jet and even run the risk of a major response because that might be useful to him in terms of trying to whip up [sympathetic] Arab opinion."

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, on a trip to Japan, vowed today to continue hitting any Iraqi air defenses which target U.S. warplanes enforcing "no-fly" zones over Iraq. Baghdad has said it no longer recognizes the zones.

The latest U.S.-Iraqi confrontation comes as Iraq has also stepped up a war of words with Arab Gulf neighbors it accuses of cooperating with Washington and London.

On Sunday, Baghdad condemned Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for allowing their territory to be used as bases for U.S. and British aircraft, calling the two states, to quote, "thieves and outlaws."

In response, Kuwait has put some of its armed forces on maximum alert. The emirate was also alarmed by Iraq's National Assembly recommending two days ago that Saddam scrap Baghdad's recognition of, to quote, "unjust resolutions taken against Iraq," including the UN-demarcated border with the emirate.

Partrick says Iraq's stepped-up verbal attacks aim to put popular pressure on regimes opposing Saddam's efforts to mobilize Arab support for lifting sanctions. "[Saddam] is hoping that he can put further pressure on [Arab] regimes, all of them, not just countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.... They are not, of course, democracies, but at the same time many of them are responsive to popular sentiment. We are getting very interesting information from Saudi Arabia suggesting a partial lifting of sanctions might be a way of refashioning the policy toward Iraq, which just shows that there is that popular wellspring of sympathy for the Iraqi people amongst fellow Arabs and Gulf governments have to be mindful of that."

Foreign ministers of six Arab Gulf nations gave cautious support to a Saudi proposal yesterday to ask the UN to lift the trade embargo on Iraq. Correspondents say the plan would keep a ban on equipment that could be used for military purposes.

But Baghdad immediately rejected the initiative, saying it will only accept total lifting of the sanctions, which were imposed following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Analysts say heightened tensions are likely to complicate diplomatic efforts to restore an arms inspections regime in Iraq after Baghdad refused to readmit inspectors from the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) following the punitive strikes last month.

The Security Council has been largely paralyzed over the future of arms inspections since the airstrikes, which were triggered by an UNSCOM report citing Iraqi refusal to cooperate. Russia and China have called the report provocative and Moscow yesterday renewed its call for chief arms inspector Richard Butler to step down.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said jointly in Moscow today that it is time to change the form of monitoring Iraqi disarmament.

France has said that by now enough Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed that UN monitoring efforts should switch focus to preventing Iraq from acquiring new ones. Paris has also said it would consider lifting sanctions as an incentive to Baghdad to cooperate with a new monitoring regime.

Both Washington and London oppose replacing UNSCOM, which under UN resolutions must certify Iraq is free of mass destruction weapons before the sanctions can be lifted.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet this week over the future of UNSCOM, resuming discussions which stalemated last month.