Iraq Plays Down `No Fly' Zone

THE governor of Iraq's predominantly Shiite Muslim south, Taher Jalil Habush, says government forces have been specifically ordered not to shoot down allied aircraft policing the "no fly" zone declared by the United States, Britain, and France.

Governor Habush of Zukhar province also denied that Iraqi forces were building up for a ground onslaught against the Shiites.

US intelligence reports say eight infantry divisions totaling 96,000 troops are amassed in the Zukhar province, where Saddam Hussein's loyalists crushed a Shiite rebellion after last year's Gulf war. But Habush said no attack was planned.

US and allied jets began patrolling the region south of the 32nd parallel on Aug. 27. Iraqi military aircraft have been banned from the zone which shelters Shiite Muslims.

Through an interpreter, Habush replied "yes" when asked whether there were specific instructions from Baghdad not to fire at the US, British, and French warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone.

It was the first confirmation from Iraqi officials that the government had ordered its forces not to engage the allies.

Baghdad has labeled the no-fly zone an act of war and has pledged to retaliate. Some Iraqi officials have hinted the retaliation could take the form of challenging the United Nations inspection teams or UN relief efforts.

But Saddam has counseled patience until an appropriate time and method of response is decided.

Iraq says the no-fly zone is part of a plot to partition the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.

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