Leading article: The air strikes on Iraq should now be stopped

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HOW MUCH longer can the US and Britain keep up their nine-month old "forgotten war" against Iraq? Yesterday Saddam Hussein protested to the United Nations Human Rights Commission over the latest strikes by allied warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country in which, Baghdad alleges, innocent civilians were killed. His move follows a separate claim that strikes earlier this month damaged the reputed burial place of Saint Matthew, near the city of Mosul. Neither charge has yet been independently verified. But both only underline the increasingly evident futility of Washington and London's policy of sanctions and military punishment against Iraq, with no end in sight.

The justification for air strikes, wheeled out again this week by the Government, is that they protect the Kurd and Shi'ite minorities who live in the no-fly zones, and curtail Saddam's ability to destabilise the region. British and US pilots only fire in self-defence, he insisted, and only at military sites.

The reality however is that, after the West's failure to oust Saddam, and the abandonment of United Nations weapons inspections, they are a last resort - little more than gestures to prove that "something is being done". The further reality is that the combination of air strikes and sanctions plays into the dictator's hands, enabling him to portray himself as defender of Iraqi sovereignty and honour, and providing a scapegoat for the terrible plight of Iraq's children (whose deprivations, in fact, have been deliberately and cynically heightened by Saddam himself to gain sympathy abroad). Nor is there much evidence that the airstrikes actually protect the Kurds and Shi'ites who live in the no-fly zones.

This newspaper, the first to draw attention to the "forgotten war", has constantly argued the need for vigilance against Saddam. But air strikes are surely not the way. At the UN, not only Russia and China, but also France among the permanent members of the Security Council, are demanding a new approach. One might be the offer of a complete lifting of sanctions in return for resumed UN inspections. The addition of a carrot might yet succeed where the stick alone has failed.