Allies give Iraq 48-hour ultimatum

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN, the United States, France and Russia last night issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Iraq demanding that it withdraw anti- aircraft missiles from the no-fly zone in the south of the country or face military action.

The ultimatum, completed at a 25-minute meeting at France's United Nations mission, was handed to Iraq's UN envoy, Nizar Hamdoon. 'I think Iraq considers any of its military moves within its territory as a defensive act and within its sovereign right,' Mr Hamdoon told journalists. 'Iraq has no hostile intent against anybody and the Iraqi military moves are merely defensive.'

A senior Western diplomatic source made it clear military action would be taken by the allies without any further warning if the 48-hour deadline is ignored and the missiles are not withdrawn as demanded. 'We have to give them that 48 hours physically to get the missiles out. But were they thereafter still considered to be violation of the UN resolution, then nobody is going to tell them what action is going to be taken or when,' he said.

This latest confrontation stems from the shooting down of an Iraqi aircraft by US fighters on

27 December in the southern no- fly zone declared by the US, Britain and France in August. Iraq vowed to take revenge and in recent days has moved anti-aircraft weapons into the region, threatening US air patrols.

The White House yesterday toughened its language against Saddam Hussein, demanding again that he abide by United Nations resolutions. 'We're watching Saddam's actions closely,' a spokesman for President George Bush said. 'We continue to consider various options for enforcing those resolutions. And we do not intend to tolerate continued

violations.'

Diplomatic sources in Washington acknowledged that although the crisis is similar to several past stand-offs with Baghdad which were resolved without use of force, this time President Saddam may go over the brink. 'This is a serious moment,' a source said.

Military sources indicated that the US and Britain were already activating contingency plans. They said six British Tornado bombers stationed in the region had been put on alert. It is probable that the targets would be Iraqi air bases, rather than the missile systems themselves, which might be more difficult to knock out.

The Pentagon has reportedly already issued a demand through military channels for the removal of the anti-aicraft installations, which can lock on to US jets by radar. It apparently received no reply from Iraq.

Military action to enforce the no-fly zone by the allies could provoke a diplomatic backlash. The zone has never been officially approved by the UN and was declared by the allies as a measure to protect the southern Shia Muslims from repression. Allied claims that enforcement of the flight ban is authorised by pre- existing Gulf war ceasefire resolutions have already been the subject of some legal dispute.

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