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.

"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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