Clinton cool on Iraqi ceasefire: - Surprise peace offer by Saddam - UN to resume Baghdad flights - Allies hit anti-aircraft batteries

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The Independent Online
IN A CALCULATED gesture towards Bill Clinton, the incoming United States President, Iraq yesterday declared a unilateral ceasefire in hostilities with the US and its allies. The first response from Mr Clinton was cool.

The Iraqi offer, pledging to end all attacks against allied aircraft in the northern and southern no-fly zones with effect from 8am today, Baghdad time (0500 GMT) 'unless the other side opens fire', appeared to offer the chance of a respite in the hostilities that flared up a week ago.

In New York, the United Nations announced last night it had received a letter from Saddam Hussein confirming unconditional flight clearance into Iraq for 70 UN weapons inspectors standing by in Bahrain. The flights would resume shortly. It was a dispute over the safe passage for the inspectors, as well as over the imposition of the no-fly zones that again pitted Iraq against the allies.

Mr Clinton, who takes office today, gave no indication, however, that he was ready to embrace the Iraqi initiative. 'We expect full compliance with all the requirements of the UN (Gulf War ceasefire) resolutions,' his communications director, George Stephanopoulos, said. 'We are not there yet. What we need to do now is see Iraq change its behaviour.'

Mr Stephanopoulous said President Saddam had a track record of flouting UN resolutions that could not be ignored. 'There is nothing in his action or his behaviour to suggest that's going to change,' he said. Pentagon sources, though, suggested that the offer was 'helpful'.

Sounding a similarly cool tone in London, the Prime Minister's office last night dismissed as 'irrelevant' the Iraqi proposal, which came after a third consecutive day of combat in Iraqi skies.

John Major had a 15-minute telephone conversation with Mr Clinton yesterday and there was a 'complete identity of views' over Iraq, government officials said.

Issued by the Revolutionary Command Council, the Iraqi statement described the ceasefire offer as a 'gesture of goodwill towards the Clinton administration and, through it, the American people'. It added that it hoped a break in the fighting would give Mr Clinton time to reassess the legitimacy of the two no-fly zones, which Baghdad regards as illegal under international law.

In reality, the surprise Iraqi proposal may at least give Mr Clinton some breathing space to weigh his options in tackling the Iraqi issue.

It is no surprise, however, that his initial reaction should be so circumspect. He neither wants to cede the initiative openly to Iraq or give any signal that he may consider a softer attitude towards Baghdad than has George Bush. Repeated statements over recent days have been designed to rule out any such possibility.

There were four fresh incidents over the northern no-fly zone after an Iraqi anti-aircraft battery reportedly 'locked on' to US and British aircraft patrolling in the area, suggesting they were about to fire. Anti-aircraft artillery was also fired at the allied planes. In response allied forces attacked surface-to-air missile installations.

On Monday, similar action was concentrated in the southern zone. That action followed the firing from US warships of a barrage of cruise missiles on an industrial plant near Baghdad considered crucial to the development by Iraq of nuclear weapons.

Before Baghdad's statement yesterday, the US confirmed that it was taking steps to reinforce its military presence in the area by dispatching the carrier USS John F Kennedy to the eastern Mediterranean. She will be accompanied by two cruisers carrying 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles each. In Kuwait, the government announced that the US Army brought in Patriot missile batteries yesterday. The Patriots were used to intercept Scud missiles fired by Iraq during the Gulf war.

In New York, meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asked the Security Council to authorise the deployment of 3,650 armed UN peacekeepers to northern Kuwait to reinforce protection of the Iraq- Kuwait border.

The Security Council met last night behind closed doors to consider this and Baghdad's ceasefire offer.

Despite Baghdad's apparent cave-in last night, there remains considerable dismay among members of the Security Council that the US had resorted to a wide-scale bombing campaign without specific UN authorisation.

Not only was the military action in defence of the no-fly zone legally questionable, according to senior UN sources, but President Bush's decision to authorise a cruise missile attack on a target in a suburb of Baghdad was viewed as 'disproportionate'.

Security Council members and UN officials are also furious at what is seen as double standards in the enforcement of council resolutions against Iraq, compared with inaction over Israel and Bosnia.

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