Allies prepare for air war against Iraq: Bush says US has 'strong responses' planned if Saddam refuses to obey Gulf ceasefire terms

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THE UNITED States and Britain are preparing plans to enforce an air exclusion zone against Iraqi warplanes to prevent further attacks on Shia Muslims by Saddam Hussein's forces. Under the plans the allies would shoot down any Iraqi armed helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft flying south of the 32nd parallel, which is about half way between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.

President George Bush said yesterday that the United States has 'strong responses' planned if President Saddam refuses to adhere strictly to Gulf war ceasefire terms. In an interview with CNN television, Mr Bush said he was 'deeply offended' by a New York Times report on Sunday saying the US wanted to provoke a confrontation with Iraq this week to provide the President with a political boost during the Republican National Convention in Houston.

But he added: 'Of course we have responses planned and they are strong responses.' Mr Bush said he believes President Saddam may be making a mistake, thinking the US will not respond to him because it is preoccupied with an election year. 'I think he's just trying to thumb his nose at the rest of the world and he's not going to get away with it.'

The RAF will be ordered to go on the alert to enforce the air exclusion zone in southern Iraq after a meeting of senior Cabinet ministers at Downing Street today, chaired by the Prime Minister.

John Major's office said last night that the action was being taken to show the Iraqi President that the West had not taken 'its eye off the ball' because of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Mr Major interrupted his Spanish holiday to fly home for the meeting of the Defence and Overseas Policy committee of the Cabinet to consider a range of military contingency plans for enforcing the UN resolutions that followed the Gulf war.

Although the Iraqi authorities allowed a UN inspection team access yesterday, Downing Street sources said that the attacks on the Shia in the marshlands of southern Iraq were 'cocking a snook' at the UN. Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent, Chief of the Defence Staff, will brief the Cabinet committee, including Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence.

RAF bombers and fighters were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia after the Gulf war but they can be redeployed quickly, Ministry of Defence sources confirmed last night. In response to earlier 'bellicose noises' by President Saddam, a force of 30 Royal Marines will arrive in Kuwait this week to take part in exercises designed to 'make a point'. The destroyer HMS Edinburgh is joining the US battle group in the northern Gulf.

The aim of the air umbrella, similar to that which protects northern Kurdistan, would be to stop an Iraqi assault on the people who live in the marshes at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The area under rebel control is small and the people under attack are primarily the marsh Arabs, a community of about 50,000.

The premature leaking of details of a US plan to bomb selected buildings in Baghdad by the New York Times on Sunday, citing officials who said it was geared to the Republican convention, has made military action against Iraq more difficult for Mr Bush, as it could be seen by voters as cynical opportunism. President Bush's Iraq policy is decreasingly popular, according to opinion polls. In a New York Times/CBS poll, published yesterday 48 per cent of respondents disapproved of the way he is handling relations with Iraq and only 40 per cent approved.

The plan to give air cover in the south of the country first emerged three weeks ago when US officials, including the then Secretary of State, James Baker met Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein in Washington. From the US point of view the plan has the advantage of having a specific military aim, the protection of the marsh Arabs, rather than a generalised desire to punish Saddam Hussein by bombing buildings in Baghdad.

A UN weapons team which has just finished inspecting a number of facilities in Iraq found significant new information about the country's ballistic missile programmes, the team's spokesman, Tim Trevan, said yesterday. The 22- member team did not visit any Iraqi government ministries because it had no need to do so this time, he said.

Mr Trevan said Iraq had three main missile programmes: the extended Scud missile, called the Hussein, with a range of about 300 miles; the two-stage Badr- 2000 missile with a range of 600 to 900 miles and a one-ton payload; and the three-stage Abid, capable of launching satellites or re-entry vehicles.

He declined to identify the sites visited and said the team were 'not denied access to any of the sites they sought'.

The UN team in Iraq is understood to have been told by Rolf Ekeus, in overall charge of the UN's search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, not to ask to enter the Ministry of Military Industrialisation because security had been breached and it would have looked as if Washington controlled the team's movements. However, the UN demand has been deferred, not cancelled. The New York Times said on Sunday that inspectors would demand access to the building as a means of provoking a confrontation.