THE United States, Britain, and France are ready and eager to enforce a "no fly" zone over southern Iraq as soon as possible, but Arab states in the Gulf region have been raising objections.
Officials in Britain said yesterday that the three Gulf-war allies had already agreed to rules of engagement allowing their pilots to shoot down Iraqi planes and helicopter gunships south of the 32nd parallel.
Defense ministry sources confirmed, however, that there had been problems getting support from some of Iraq's Arab neighbors for the air-exclusion policy. The sources said governments approached to allow allied planes to use air bases on their territory reacted cautiously.
An agreement, hammered out in consultations among Washington, London, and Paris, provides for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to be given a 24-hour deadline to cease all air operations south of the 32nd parallel. After that Iraqi planes straying into the no-fly zone will be regarded as valid targets for allied aircraft.
Last weekend London officials had expected the ultimatum to be delivered to Iraq's ambassador at the United Nations yesterday or today.
But the cagey reaction of unnamed Gulf states to the idea of pressuring President Saddam to stop attacks on Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq appeared to have created problems for the allies.
British officials said they would not be unduly worried by a delay. However they confirmed reports that Iraq had been engaged in fierce lobbying of its neighbors to question the viability of the no-fly policy.
Gulf-based diplomats reportedly said yesterday that more time was needed for the chief players in the policy to reassure Arab states they had no intention of partitioning Iraq.
The no-fly policy is aimed at forcing Saddam to stop air attacks on Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq's marshlands, and is to be pursued in accordance with UN resolutions.
The allied position was strengthened over the weekend when a Russian Foreign Ministry statement accused Iraq of playing political games. The statement pledged full support for "all necessary measures" to implement UN decisions.
Britain announced that the three allies had decided on a no-fly policy against Iraq last week, following an emergency Cabinet meeting Aug. 18.
Without bases in countries close to Iraq, the no-fly plan cannot be carried out, even though many of the US planes expected to take part were based on aircraft carriers.
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and Muharraq, Bahrain have been named as possible bases for British aircraft to operate from. Both were used during the Gulf war 18 months ago. London sources said Kuwait had also been approached to allow British planes to use bases on its soil.
The Muslim weekend, which began on Friday, also hindered an early agreement with the Arab countries on base facilities.
Six British and 10 French warplanes have been earmarked for deployment against Iraq. Yesterday the Royal Air Force Tornados were still on the ground at their base at Marham, in northeast England.
The choice of Tornado jets for the operation above southern Iraq indicates the kind of tactics the allies plan to use.
Tornados were used in Operation Desert Storm for infra-red pinpointing of targets, which were then attacked by other jets, mostly American. It is expected that they will play the same role once the no-fly zone becomes operational.
US fighters, which lack targeting equipment comparable to that aboard the British Tornados, would do most of the actual shooting, a defense source said.
Britain is having to prepare to apply the no-fly policy against Iraq while it goes ahead with plans to deploy 1,800 troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina to protect UN shipments of food and relief assistance.