Iraq sees battles with US as a help

It plans to fire on US war jets in the no-fly zones in a strategy seen as boosting chances of an end to sanctions.

A week after the end of US and British attacks, Iraqi leaders have only deepened their defiance toward each pillar of the US-led containment of Iraq.

Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan declared Saturday that his government would fire on warplanes patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. Iraq also indicated last week that United Nations weapons inspectors would not be allowed back. And just yesterday, Baghdad urged its Arab neighbors to break the UN embargo on Iraq.

Senior US and British officials insist that their policies are crucial to keeping Saddam Hussein, in their words, "in his cage," so that Iraq does not threaten its neighbors. But Iraq appears to have taken advantage of a burst of sympathy, especially in the Arab world, to portray itself as a victim of US and British aggression.

Iraq's actions may be targeted at dividing the UN Security Council in its review of Iraq. Last week's UN meeting on Iraq pitted Iraq's traditional friends Russia, China, and France against the United States and Britain.

Surprisingly, Baghdad has lashed out rhetorically at those nations that have been its most ardent supporters on the UN Security Council. Russia, China, and France have been instrumental in approving a comprehensive review of Iraq's relations with the UN, and in calling for an early end to sanctions.

But the Babel newspaper, owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, was less than gracious for past help, pointing toward a possible new Iraqi policy of isolation. Russia had intervened in the past to ask Iraq to make "difficult concessions" while giving nothing in return, the paper said, while China "simply hands out statements from its foreign ministry ... and we do not expect anything else."

"As for France [which did not immediately condemn the air raids], its position is so hesitant and unclear that our people cannot work out whether they are with us or against us," Babel said.

Among the steps Iraq has taken:

* Extensive no-fly zones were imposed in northern and southern Iraq by the United States, Britain, and France after the Gulf War, and have been routinely patrolled ever since. But over he weekend, Iraq vowed for the first time to fire on planes patrolling these "illegal" zones.

"We say frankly now that any violation of Iraqi airspace will be met by Iraqi fire," Mr. Ramadan told Qatar's Al-Jazeera television. For years Iraq grudgingly tolerated the zones - crucial to Pentagon strategists for "keeping Saddam in his box" - but now it notes that they were not imposed by the UN, but the three nations themselves.

The no-fly zones have limited Iraq's control of the predominantly Kurdish north and Shiite south - two groups that could be challengers to Saddam's power.

In addition to its challenge to the no-fly zones, Iraq also slapped a ban on all UN flights to and from the country last Wednesday.

* Iraq has ruled out a return of UN weapons inspectors, which it accuses of working as spies for Washington and serving as a barrier to lift sanctions. This stance has divided the UN Security Council as Russian, Chinese, and French members seek the review of Iraq's relations with the UN.

President Clinton made clear that US aims to "degrade" Iraq's capability of making chemical, biological, and nuclear munitions - and the means to deliver them with missiles - were achieved by the strikes.

But long-term, on-the-ground monitoring may be over. "The US, by its demand [for inspections to resume] is trying in vain to turn the clock back," said an Iraqi information ministry spokesman, quoted by the Iraqi News Agency. The UN weapons inspectors "are part of the past because of the American-British aggression."

* Iraqi officials are urging their Arab neighbors to ignore UN sanctions, and made their case Sunday during an emergency meeting of the Arab Parliamentary Union in Amman, Jordan, held to unify an Arab position.

"We will ask the meeting to adopt resolutions committing Arab governments to break the embargo on Iraq," Sadoun Hammadi, Iraq's parliament speaker, was quoted as saying by the Iraqi News Agency. "The aggressors [of the airstrikes] should be punished."

According to UN resolutions, the sanctions are not to be lifted until UN weapons inspectors certify Iraq is clean of weapons of mass destruction - an aim that is still far off, even if Iraq were to resume cooperation. In the past month, however, Washington has made it increasingly clear that it can see no end of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.

After early indications that Saddam emerged from the airstrikes perhaps stronger, some Baghdad diplomats now say the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was in fact "shaken." The four-star American commander who directed the air attack, US Marines Gen. Anthony Zinni, says that the Iraqi leader had taken security precautions.

"We're seeing signs that he's having problems and signs that he's reacting to those problems," General Zinni told Reuters on a military plane in the Gulf on Thursday. The Pentagon has reason to believe that Saddam Hussein was "experiencing more internal problems than he has in the past."

But there was support for Iraq from unexpected quarters. Despite past differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi financier who Washington blames for masterminding the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last August, Mr. bin Laden weighed in on this issue.

The airstrikes, he told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat from a base in Afghanistan, made it "the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill" American and British citizens. "And anything that can be taken from them by force is the rightful prize of Muslims."

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