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Iraq: Conflict Over No-Fly Zones Continues

The Western-imposed northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq have become the scene of almost daily confrontations between U.S. and British jets and Iraqi defense forces. RFE/FL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports the confrontations show no sign of diminishing.

Prague, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- London, Washington and Baghdad are waging an almost daily battle over the Western-powers' determination to continue enforcing the no-fly zones they have maintained over Iraq since the Gulf War.

The Pentagon said last week U.S. and British planes have conducted 108 strikes within the northern and southern no-fly zones so far this year. Pentagon spokesman Craig Quigly told reporters that the strikes -- 65 in the northern zone and 43 in the southern -- have destroyed Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites, communications sites and other military installations that he did not specify.

Baghdad also reports incidents in the two zones on an almost daily basis. The Iraqi official media says the U.S. and British strikes kill civilians, including nine in an attack in the southern zone last week. The casualty reports, impossible to independently confirm, total to scores of deaths in recent months.

The conflict over the zones has been heating up since the start of the year when Iraq announced it would routinely challenge U.S. and British jets patrolling its northern and southern skies. That announcement came in the wake of intense U.S. and British air strikes on military sites across Iraq in December aimed at forcing Baghdad to cooperate with UN arms control inspectors.

Iraq has never recognized the no-fly zones since they were imposed by Britain, France and the United States without a UN Security Council resolution after the Gulf War in 1991. Russia and China support Baghdad's objections to the zones, and France has turned ambivalent on the issue. Paris stopped participating in policing the northern zone in 1996 and now has only a partial commitment to patrolling the southern zone.

Neil Partrick, a Mideast expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told RFE/RL recently Iraq hopes that by constantly challenging U.S. and British patrols it can provoke an international dialogue over their legitimacy and pressure London and Washington to abandon them. Neil Partrick:

"It ... is a very clever way of pointing out a major point of difference between France [on the one hand] and Britain and America [on the other], [since] Russia and China have never supported no-fly zones ... So, [the Iraqis] have emphasized that issue by engaging American and British jets. No-fly zones themselves don't actually have direct UN legitimacy, either, so they are a point of difficulty to some extent for the Arab regimes, not least, of course, because Saudi Arabia in particular is used as the launching point for policing the southern fly zone. It also, of course, puts pressure on Turkey, because the Incerlik base [in southern Turkey] is the point at which the northern no-fly zone is policed."

The U.S. and British response to Iraq's policy of challenging the patrols has been to broaden what they term the rules of engagement their pilots use in deciding when to attack Iraqi targets.

The broadened guidelines now permit pilots to make pre-emptive strikes on Iraqi air-defense installations whenever they feel they present a threat, for example, by trying to track their planes with radar.

Britain, France and the United States originally declared the no-fly zones to protect Iraqi-Kurds in northern Iraq and Iraqi-Shiites in southern Iraq. The move came after both groups launched rebellions against the government of Saddam Hussein and then became the targets of brutal reprisal measures, including the use of air power against them.

The northern zone covers some one-fifth of the country north of the 36th parallel, or less than half of the Iraqi-Kurd inhabited area. It was declared in the Spring of 1991, as part of allied measures to reassure some one million Iraqi Kurds who had fled into the mountains of Turkey that they could safely live in northern Iraq. The no-fly zone prohibits flights by any Iraqi aircraft, including helicopters, without the allies' prior permission.

A few months later in 1991, the allies also created a southern no-fly zone. It has since been expanded to cover some one-half of the country below the 33rd parallel. The zone, the heartland of Iraq's Shiite majority, was the scene of extended fighting between armed Shiite groups and the Iraqi security forces in spring 1991 following the final expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait by an international coalition earlier that year.