Iraq crisis: US bombers scrambled in Iraq crisis grows

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US Air Force B-52 bombers carrying cruise missiles were in the air last night after President Bill Clinton signed a directive approving military and economic retribution against Saddam Hussein, according to an official in Washington.

The bombers took off from Guam, according to the news channel CNN quoting a Pentagon source who could not say if they would be used in an attack on President Saddam. US-led military retaliation against Iraq seemed inevitable as Mr Clinton and the Gulf war allies yesterday moved close to a decision to punish President Saddam for his incursion at the weekend into the Kurdish "safe zone" in northern Iraq.

At the end of a day of consultations between Washington and other capitals, officials said some form of counter-strike was "a foregone conclusion, the only question being when and where". Even though Iraqi forces seemed to have left the Kurdish stronghold of Arbil, the view was strengthening here that President Saddam had to be punished if Western threats were to retain credibility.

US officials believe an Iraqi pull-back is taking place but are sceptical of pledges emanating from Baghdad of a total withdrawal south of the 36th parallel. American forces in the region remain on high alert and troops and aircraft in the US are on standby.

The rhetoric in Washington is similar to that of previous skirmishes with President Saddam since his Gulf war defeat.

The challenge would not go unanswered, "Because he's prone to miscalculation," Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said earlier yesterday, "that might lead him to believe he can do other things that are clearly unacceptable."

But several factors complicate the issue. One is the problem of devising a satisfactory military response. The dispatch of ground troops is unlikely, experts say, because of the difficult terrain, while the use of air power could cause casualties to the Kurdish civilians.

The Clinton administration must also weigh the impact of the new Islamic- led Turkish government, as well as the fact that the Kurds are split between pro-Iraqi and pro-Iranian factions. And it must guard against any hint of irresolution against President Saddam being exploited by the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole.

Some analysts here argue that whatever punishment he incurs, President Saddam has already scored a points win in his latest confrontation with the West. He has shown he is still a force in his own backyard and succeeded in preventing the formation of a united Kurdish movement in Iraq, a prime diplomatic objective of the US.

Arbil bloodbath, page 8

Leading article, page 13