Heaviest raids since Desert Fox

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The Independent Online
THE CONFLICT between Washington and Baghdad escalated to a new level of danger yesterday, with at least five separate attacks by US aircraft on Iraqi targets.

Baghdad said a number of civilians were killed in what it called "savage" air raids on civilian and economic targets in the south of the country.

The official Iraqi News Agency, INA, reported "tens of people" injured in the attacks and the information minister, Humam Abdul-Khaleq Abdul- Ghafur, said those killed included women and children, following "at least two attacks on civilian sites".

Missiles hit the densely populated area of al-Jumhuriya close to the southern city of Basra, INA reported.

Mr Abdul-Ghafur said the attacks were carried out by "the American and British fighters". A British government official said last night that no British aircraft were involved.

America and Britain say their aircraft are being targeted by Iraqi radar and surface-to-air missiles, and that Iraqi aircraft are intruding into the no-fly zones established after the Gulf War. Iraq says the zones are illegitimate.

Iraq says the US and Britain are once again conducting an aerial bombing campaign against the country, not just sporadic responses to Iraqi challenges, as London and Washington claim.

The level of conflict yesterday was the most violent since the air campaign, Operation Desert Fox, ended last month. It has become increasingly less clear whether allied fighters are defending themselves or are deliberately targeting Iraqi facilities at will. "There were air strikes in the southern no-fly zone as a result of provocation," said a US spokesman yesterday. He said the latest incidentstargeted air defence facilities and surface- to-air missiles.

The US said the attack on Basra was a reprisal for an incursion by Iraqi aircraft into the southern no-fly zone, not for an effort to shoot down allied planes. In the past two weeks, the US has apparently changed the rules of engagement for its forces, allowing them to hit radar and anti- aircraft sites even when they are not under attack. Unusually, the US has been reluctant to release gun camera film of the attacks.

The US said there had also been three attacks by US fighters in the northern no-fly zone. Aircraft had been illuminated by Iraqi ground radar near Mosul, and the US had responded by bombing an anti-aircraft site and two missile sites.

America and Britain already have over 200 aircraft patrolling the skies over southern Iraq. In addition they have sent extra aircraft to defend Kuwait, and new A-10 tankbusters will arrive shortly to rotate with aircraft that are to return to the US. Britain has also dispatched the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, carrying an extra 24 Harrier fighter-bombers.

Iraq may be trying to drive a wedge between the US and Britain and other powers through the conflict. Yesterday the speaker of the Russian Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, said he was furious at the attack. He told the visiting US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, of his anger. "I said, again peaceful people have been killed but she said nothing," he said.

The upsurge in attacks came less than 24 hours after an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo failed to provide any comfort for Saddam Hussein's regime. The meeting told Iraq to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and to stop threatening its neighbours. Iraq's foreign minister stormed out.