Allies Declare 'No-Fly Zone' in IraqBy John Lancaster
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 1992; Page A01 President Bush yesterday accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of "harsh repression" against Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq and said the United States, France and Britain have ordered the Iraqi military to stop flying planes and helicopters in the region by 10:15 a.m. EDT today.
Allied warplanes will patrol the southern third of Iraq below the 32nd parallel and are prepared to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft that defy the "no-fly zone," officials said.
The formal announcement of the ban, which had been expected for several days, is aimed at curbing Iraqi military operations in southern Iraq's vast marshlands, which serve as a refuge for Shiite rebels and Army deserters opposed to Baghdad's rule.
"We seek Iraq's compliance, not its partition," Bush said. "The United States continues to support Iraq's territorial unity and bears no ill will towards its people."
While Pentagon officials do not expect Iraq to challenge the ban directly, the move poses significant risks for the Bush administration, which could find itself under pressure amid a U.S. election campaign to do more on behalf of the Shiites.
Administration officials charge that Iraq has recently stepped up its military campaign in the marshes, including helicopter attacks and "indiscriminate" shelling against Shiite villages peopled mostly with subsistence fishermen who have inhabited the area for centuries.
Bush also cited the Iraqi government's continued blockade of food and medicine to the country's Kurdish minority in the north and the execution last month of merchants in Baghdad accused of evading price controls as evidence that Saddam is continuing to defy U.N. Resolution 688, which prohibits the Iraqi government from repressing its own people.
Bush said yesterday that if the Iraqi government persists in its marsh campaign using ground forces alone, "quite obviously we would be extraordinarily concerned about that because that would be in violation of 688, as the use of these planes is."
But the president stopped short of committing the United States or its allies to military action against Iraqi troops, tanks and artillery positions in the south, pointedly describing the purpose of the allied air patrols only as a one of "monitoring." Pentagon officials said yesterday that Iraq currently maintains eight to 10 divisions, or 60,000 troops, in southern Iraq and is continuing ground attacks in the marshes.
The lack of a stronger commitment to defending the so-called Marsh Arabs has raised fears among Iraqi opposition figures and their allies on Capitol Hill that the no-fly zone could be what one prominent Iraqi exile termed a "half measure" with no long-term policy goal. Opposition members have not forgotten what happened in the weeks following last year's Persian Gulf War, when Bush exhorted the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam's rule but refused to prevent Iraq's military from brutally suppressing Kurdish and Shiite rebels.
"It is absolutely vital that the shelling stop in the marshes. If the shelling is not stopped, it makes the no-fly zone an empty gesture," said Laith Kubba, a Shiite Muslim exiled from Baghdad and a member of the executive committee of the Iraqi National Congress, which represents the leading groups opposed to Saddam's rule.
Kubba said in a telephone interview from London that while "we welcome" the no-fly zone as a first step, "we are certain Saddam Hussein will attempt to reassert his authority on the ground," much as he is already trying to do against Kurdish rebels in the north. The allies have imposed a similar no-fly zone in that region above the 36th parallel and a smaller "security zone" near the Turkish border, where all Iraqi military activity is banned.
Kubba, like other opposition figures and analysts, thinks the Bush administration would have a hard time avoiding a deeper commitment if allied planes, while freely patrolling the skies, see Iraqi forces continue their attacks on civilians on the ground.
Further complicating matters is Bush's reelection campaign, which leaves the president vulnerable to charges that any steps he takes towards a new military confrontation with Iraq are politically inspired. Although Bush said he does not "think the other side'll try to put a political spin on this," he did direct his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to notify Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton of the plan.
Clinton, campaigning in Tennessee, said yesterday he fully supported the no-fly zone as "an appropriate thing to do" given Saddam's continued pattern of resistance to U.N. resolutions passed in the aftermath of the gulf war.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that the Iraqis have removed virtually all of their fixed-wing aircraft from the no-fly zone and most of their helicopter gunships. Although they do not expect a direct challenge, officials emphasized they cannot predict how Saddam will respond to the ban.
At the United Nations yesterday, Iraqi ambassador Abdul Amir Anbari denounced the flying ban as a violation of international law but hinted that his country probably will not challenge it with military force. Anbari offered to invite an international committee of "wise men" to southern Iraq to investigate reports of human rights violations there.
In Bagdhad, Iraqi Minister of Information Youssef Hammadi struck a somewhat more assertive tone, telling NBC News that Iraq has rebuilt its air defenses, which were heavily damaged in gulf war, and would use them if allied aircraft flew into southern Iraq.
"This is the mission of the air defense system," Hammadi said. "When we are attacked, we will reply in self-defense." Iraqi air defenses in the region include SA-3 and SA-9 missiles as well as numerous anti-aircraft batteries, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
In addition, Iraq has concentrated considerable numbers of combat aircraft -- including Su-25 "Frogfoot" ground attack jets and Mirage fighters -- as well as helicopters and ground forces at Al Jarrah north of the 32nd parallel, officials said. The concentration of warplanes so close to the no-fly zone raises the possibility of Iraqi flights along the fringes of the prohibited area aimed at testing allied resolve.
"They have significant fighter and fighter-bomber . . . capability at Al Jarrah, and we've been monitoring that situation carefully," Rear Adm. Mike Kramer, director of intelligence support for the Joint Staff, said at a briefing for reporters yesterday. "The point is that we will be adequately postured to ensure that we can defend ourselves."
The United States has maintained substantial naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf region since the end of the gulf war, including an all-purpose air wing of slightly more than 70 aircraft in Saudi Arabia, which has agreed to the use of its air bases to support the flight ban. In recent days, the United States has boosted its forces in the region with small numbers of additional planes, including RF-4G reconnaissance aircraft, RC-135 tankers, F-15C fighters and EF-111 radar jamming aircraft.
The United States likely will enforce the ban by dividing the southern region into three or four zones, each of which would be monitored by AWACS radar planes capable of tracking hostile aircraft across thousands of square miles. Several combat aircraft -- Air Force F-15s and F-16s or Navy F-14s and F/A-18s -- would be assigned to each AWACS and would challenge any Iraqi pilots who try to penetrate the area. Britain has pledged six Tornado fighters to the mission, and France has committed an unpublicized number of Mirages.
High-flying U-2 reconnaissance planes, among others, are expected to take photographs of Iraqi military positions on the ground. The overall region encompasses about 47,520 square miles, roughly the size of Mississippi.
"The purpose of establishing the no-fly zone -- and I would emphasize it's a no-fly zone, not a security zone -- is to ensure the safety of coalition aircraft monitoring Iraqi compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 688," Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, director of operations for the Joint Staff, said at the Pentagon briefing.
The administration's decision amounts to a significant policy shift on the subject of the rebels, who have waged a guerrilla campaign against Iraqi rule since they were driven into the marshes 18 months ago. In the past, administration officials had expressed fears that aiding the rebels could contribute to the breakup of Iraq and possibly spawn an Islamic fundamentalist regime with ties to Iran.
Senior administration officials yesterday attributed their change of heart to several factors, including pledges from leading Shiites that they are committed to a united Iraq and the emergence of a unified opposition encompassing representatives from all major sectors of Iraqi society.
One official said that following a recent meeting in Washington between members of the Iraqi National Congress and then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, there now is "a greater understanding here about what the objectives are of the opposition . . . . One of the basic messages we received . . . is that the Iraqi opposition is committed to a government, a post-Saddam government in Iraq which follows democratic principles."
Officials described the attacks on the Shiites as part of a general pattern of increased resistance lately by Saddam. Other examples include lack of cooperation with U.N. weapons inspections teams and refusal to grant visa extensions to U.N. guards and relief-agency workers carrying out humanitarian missions in Iraq.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.