AMERICAN, British, and French jets are roaring across the skies of southern Iraq again, enforcing the "no fly" policy decreed by President Bush last week. The three Gulf war allies have warned Saddam Hussein that no Iraqi aircraft will be permitted to fly in the zone below the 32nd parallel, the home of Iraq's Shiite Muslims.
The announced purpose of the overflights is to defend Shiites from air attacks by Saddam's military. The no-fly policy is defensible as a humanitarian measure, since Saddam has waged a harsh war of repression against the Shiites since their abortive rebellion after the Gulf war. The allies, especially the United States, bear some responsibility for the Shiites' plight, having encouraged them in their revolt.
How serious is Mr. Bush about protecting the Shiites, though? He's stopped short of guaranteeing their safety from continued assaults by Saddam's ground forces. Having implicitly promised the Shiites more than it could deliver once before, the US must not set them up again.
In fact the military escalation is part of Bush's frustrated attempt to get rid of Saddam. Economic sanctions have failed to stir up Iraqis against the dictator, and Saddam easily quashed a military coup plot this summer. Now the Western allies seem to hope that Saddam's followers - threatened with the de facto partition of Iraq into a Kurdish zone in the north, a Shiite zone in the south, and a Sunni Muslim region around Baghdad - will decide that it's time for Saddam to go.
Bush could be playing with fire, however. Although the president says he doesn't want to partition Iraq, Iraq's Arab neighbors are worried about the prospects for more instability in the region. Of the Arab states that supported or at least acquiesced in Desert Storm, only Saudi Arabia is somewhat reluctantly going along with the no-fly policy.
While Bush asserts that the policy is authorized under the UN's Gulf war resolutions, members of the wartime coalition view this new step as a Western power play.
There can be no long-term stability in the Gulf region so long as Saddam rules in Iraq. But as Bush recognized at the time of the war, he must not destroy Iraq to get at his Baghdad nemesis.