Bush plans air strikes on Baghdad

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The Independent Online
THE United States is planning air strikes against ministries in Baghdad if Saddam Hussein refuses to allow UN inspection teams free access to Iraqi buildings. The raids are planned for next month as the Bush White House steps up the confrontation with Iraq in the approach to the US presidential elections in November.

The US, Britain and France have already decided to establish regular air patrols over southern Iraq to protect the Shia Muslims living in the marshes. The announcement of an exclusion zone which will stop Iraqi aircraft flying in the area is expected from Washington this week.

President Bush and John Major have maintained that their actions are to protect the marsh Arabs from Saddam's planes and to force him to comply with UN resolutions. But it is clear that the White House would like to get rid of Saddam during the US election campaign, in which Mr Bush is trailing Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, in the polls.

According to Washington sources, Mr Bush and General Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Adviser, decided at a meeting in Washington 10 days ago to bomb ministries which inspectors were not allowed to enter and establish air patrols below the 32nd parallel.

Mr Bush and General Scowcroft wanted the decision implemented immediately, if Allied consent could be obtained. The US originally wanted the air exclusion zone declared last Tuesday but, when this did not happen, asked for a delay until after the Republican convention in Houston because of accusations that it was confronting Iraq for electoral reasons.

In Iraq yesterday, Saddam Hussein showed no sign of backing down. Jan Eliasson, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, left Baghdad yesterday after failing to win Iraq's agreement to revive UN relief programmes which lapsed on 30 June.

Reacting to the intended imposition of the air exclusion zone, Iraq said yesterday that its people were prepared to die in order to prevent the Allies carving up Iraq. 'The Iraqis cannot allow themselves any flexibility when Iraqi territory is at stake,' the army daily al-Qadissiya said. 'Resistance by all means must be the battle cry.'

The new US policy stems from Washington's belief that the low- level confrontation with Saddam since the end of the Gulf War has not been working. With the Iraqi leader still in power, the 21-day effort by UN inspectors to gain entry to the Agricultural Ministry in Baghdad, which ended on 27 July, became an exercise in humiliation. US observers see Mr Bush's political requirements as coinciding neatly with the need for a new policy towards Iraq.

While Britain has been closely co-ordinating its actions with Washington, agreeing to send Tornados to the Gulf, British sources maintain that their actions were prompted by new UN evidence of what Downing Street last week called a systematic attempt to wipe out a section of the Shia population in the south by bombing from fixed-wing aircraft. British officials point out that agreement to mount the operation followed swiftly on receipt of the latest UN report.

British sources say Washington and London have already agreed that the 'no fly' zone should extend beyond the immediate region of the Tigris and Euphrates, where the Shia are concentrated, to the west, where there are Iraqi air bases that could be used to mount attacks.

Despite reports of earlier disagreement on whether the zone should cover the whole of Iraq south of the 32nd parallel, as the US originally proposed, both sides now accept that some air bases will have to be included. Although final discussions are continuing on the exact boundaries of the zone, a high-ranking British source said that, once it was fixed, aircraft leaving bases within it would be shot down whatever their apparent destination. 'No fly means no fly,' the source added.

Senior British officials are optimistic, however, that Saddam will not seek to defy the ban, citing his observation of the Kurdish exclusion zone, and the care with which he preserved Iraqi combat aircraft from attack during the Gulf war.

New opinion polls show Mr Bush narrowing Mr Clinton's lead. A Los Angeles Times poll had Mr Clinton ahead by eight points, 49 per cent to 41, compared with a lead of 56 to 33 per cent nine days ago, before the Republican convention.