IN the waning days of the Bush administration, Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, is clearly trying to see how much mischief he can get away with.
For one thing, the Iraqi Air Force now appears to be systematically violating the no-fly zone that United States-led allies have established below the 32nd parallel in southern Iraq. On Dec. 28, a day after US F-16s downed an Iraqi MIG inside the zone, Saddam's warplanes continued to dash across the zone borderline. All turned away before US aircraft could confront them.
For another, these airborne tauntings coincide with stepped-up action by Saddam against both the Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north. Iraqi harassment halted United Nations relief shipments to the Kurds for most of late December, for instance.
It took Sunday's shoot-down to make front-page headlines. But Saddam's aggressiveness has been increasing for some time.
"What has been missed in this whole story is how much he has to challenge the allies to get anyone's attention," says Laurie Mylroie, an Iraqi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
There have been over 30 bombing incidents traceable to Iraqi efforts in the northern Kurdish area, which is also under the umbrella of an allied-enforced no-fly zone. Yet these incidents attracted no special reaction from allied leaders.
United Nations aid convoys to the Kurds resumed only on Dec. 29, after Iraq finally agreed to allow UN guards to ride with the shipments. In previous incidents, bombs had been found on the trucks after they passed Iraqi checkpoints. "He's been pushing and pushing," Ms. Mylroie says. "It's little wonder he started to fool around in the south as well."
President Bush announced the no-fly zone in the south on Aug. 26. At the time, Saddam Hussein laid low and didn't risk pilots or planes in a direct challenge.
That wasn't surprising given the fact that his air force is a shadow of its former self. US officials estimate that the Iraqis have about 150 operational aircraft, down from a pre-Gulf war number of 700. Those planes that are left are thought to be poorly maintained due to a lack of spare parts. And Iraqi pilots have never shown much enthusiasm for confronting the sophisticated weapons of the US Air Force.
The Iraqi challenges of recent days have been small bites. Typically, they involve short dashes 20 miles or so beyond the 32nd parallel, when no allied patrol is near. US officials decline to provide the number of crossings.
The MIG that was shot down on Sunday was the only challenger whose pilot, either through design or mistake, neglected to run when a pair of US F-16s appeared.
The incident was widely hailed in the Pentagon, not so much as an indication of US resolve, but because of the air-to-air missile used to destroy the MIG.
The missile, known by its acronym AMRAAM, is a medium-range weapon guided by its own on-board radar. This piece of equipment has consumed much time and billions of dollars in a troubled development. The F-16s' use of the AMRAMM was the weapon's first test in combat.
In recent months, US airpower in the Saudi peninsula has dropped by almost half, to some 70 to 80 planes. In deference to regional sensibilities, US officials will not publicly disclose where this airpower is based, but most of the planes are thought to be located at Saudi installations.
This decline in airpower is now thought to have allowed holes in-between patrols big enough for Saddam's air force to test. Thus the US is taking steps to rebuild its power in the region, by sending the carrier Kitty Hawk back from Somalia to the Saudi coast.