Iraqi Plays Down Allies' `No-Fly Zone'

Iraq's ambassador to the European Community said yesterday that the Gulf war allies' decision to set up an air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq would be used as a pretext for an attack against his country.

"This is no more than a provocation action, to be used as a pretext for military action against Iraq," Zaid Haidar said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corporation television.

Britain said earlier on Wednesday that the Gulf allies would impose a "no-fly zone" to stop air attacks on the Shiite Muslims living in Iraq's southern marshes, saying Iraqi warplanes entering it would be shot down.

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"We are not afraid of this," the ambassador said. "We faced...2,500 sorties every day [during last year's Gulf war], and we are still progressing and rebuilding and making a very civilized response to the destruction made by the allies," Mr. Haidar said.

Asked about reports of atrocities by the Iraqi Army against the Shiites, he said: "It is not attacking the Shiites. These are people from a different religion but the biggest part of them they come from Iran."

The marshlands of southern Iraq, where many Shiites have fled since the failure of a rebellion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the Gulf war, border Iran.

Haidar said the allies had sought a new pretext to take military action after failing to provoke Baghdad over disputes about inspection of Iraqi military installations under the Gulf War cease-fire agreements.

"They are looking for a provocative action to give them a pretext for a military action and this is to boost the reelection of [President] Bush. You are very close allies and you want to help Mr. Bush to be reelected," he said.

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