Iraq flies in face of US 'no-fly'

Tuesday's clash with US jets over southern Iraq points up Saddam's defiance.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is increasing his defiance in both words and actions - a sign, some say, of his frustration and vulnerability less than a month after massive airstrikes against Iraq.

Tuesday's clash with Iraqi fighter jets over the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq sparked the first air-to-air engagement with American planes in six years. The incident - the third one within two weeks - is a key part of Saddam's defiance.

The Iraqi leader is trying to "take control of the situation," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. One reason may be a new "sense of vulnerability" brought on by the airstrikes last month. This defiance would "shore up support, and remind the Iraqi people that he is there," she says.

Saddam is pushing other fronts as well. In a speech televised Tuesday, he urged the Arab people to "revolt against those who boast of friendship with the United States." Baghdad has also said it will not renew visas for 14 British and American UN humanitarian workers.

Saddam Hussein "often takes these steps when he's frustrated and when he's isolated," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

"We will continue to enforce the 'no-fly' zone. It's an important part of our containment policy."

"We are flying in our own airspace," Sultan Hashim Ahmed, Iraq's defense minister, said on Wednesday. "We'll defend it until death."

Iraq is engaged in a war of words with some Arab rulers - especially Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - which has revealed the depth of the rift among Arab nations over Iraq.

Mr. Mubarak last week blamed the Iraqi regime for Baghdad's problems, and in an interview with the semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper said: "It is high time the Iraqi regime took responsibility for the suffering it has brought Iraqis."

Egypt's state-run radio took the cue on Tuesday, referring to the Iraqi leader as "a butcher" and "destroyer" who would risk the life of every Iraqi to stay in power. Egyptian officials are also reported to have held meetings with Iraqi opponents in exile - opponents that are the focus of Washington's recent vow to encourage the overthrow of the Iraqi regime.

How 'no-fly' zones started

Unlike the role of United Nations weapons inspectors to disarm Iraq and sanctions that have been mandated by the UN Security Council as part of the Gulf War cease-fire, the "no-fly" zones were created by the US and British, and for a time, the French.

Washington refers to Security Council resolution 688, which called for an end to internal repression, to justify the zones.

"The problem is the resolution does not call for action," says John Quigley, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in international law in the Mideast. "Legally, it's a rather weak position."

The US unilaterally declared the northern zone in Iraq in 1991 to protect Kurds whose rebellion after the Gulf War was snuffed out by Iraqi helicopter gunships.

The southern zone was set up by the US, Britain, and France in 1992 to protect Shiite Muslims, whose own rebellion after the war was brought to an end by Iraqi attack helicopters and, according to declassified US military intelligence reports, the use of chemical agents.

A subsequent series of operations by the armed forces to drain and burn the southern marshes and hunt for Shiite dissidents led to the creation of the zone.

In 1996, after Iraqi troops moved into the northern enclave at the temporary invitation of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, the southern zone was extended from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel, just south of Baghdad. France then pulled out altogether.

On Monday, Baghdad complained in a diplomatic note to the UN that the war "was still under way by virtue of the maintenance of the "no-fly" zones imposed by force of arms."

Nevertheless, the zones have enabled easier implementation of the US policy of "containing" Iraq.

"They have been effective as an early warning mechanism, and for sending a message to Baghdad that 'You do not have sovereignty here, you don't have control of your skies,' " says Iraq specialist Ms. Yaphe.

"They prohibit him from using his helicopter gunships like he did in 1991," she adds. "We made a big mistake there."

Crucial use of helicopters

That was immediately after the war, and there could be no clearer example of the importance of air power to the Iraqi regime. US commanders agreed to allow the Iraqi military to use the helicopters, ostensibly to ferry casualties as ambulances from the battlefield.

But for those who were on the ground with the rebels in 1991 - as this correspondent was, with the Kurds south of the town of Arbil - the use of the "ambulances" to put down the uprising was crucial.

Kurdish and Shiite rebels were moving toward Baghdad from the north and south, and US officials predicted that Saddam Hussein would not survive the uprising. But when the Iraqi military turned the tables overnight with a counteroffensive, optimism turned to despair.

Advancing tanks were a threat on the ground that the Kurds, at least, were confident they could overcome. But helicopters appeared over the horizon, firing rockets on Kurdish positions. High overhead, American planes watched the counteroffensive.

Within days, Iraqi forces recaptured lost territory, forcing 1-1/2 million Kurds to flee to Turkey and Iran.

In the south, US forces watched from their camp through their TOW-missile sights across the Euphrates River to the town of Nasiriyeh, where Iraqi helicopters used spray nozzles to douse rebels with mustard gas.

The rebellion was over. Now, Saddam Hussein is still in power to broadcast his defiance.

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