Unsupported by any resolution of the Security Council, but with a nod towards vague principles of international humanitarian law, the US and its Gulf war allies have imposed the 'no-fly' zone on a vast swathe of Southern Iraq as of today (10.15am US East Coast time, 3.15pm BST). Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Abdul Amir al-Anbari, was informed that 'no threat will be tolerated' and Allied warplanes would respond 'appropriately and decisively' to flares or other illumination, tracking radar 'or any other action deemed hostile'.
The Iraqi ambassador immediately denounced the move, saying it violated the UN Charter and warning that it would lead to military confrontation unless an international committee of mediators helped out.
The Ministry of Defence could not confirm reports last night that the Iraqis had flown a dozen of their best fighters, Mirage 2000s, from northern Iraq to the edge of the exclusion zone, suggesting that Baghdad intends to test allied pilots' resolve by flying quickly in and out of the zone.
Despite the allies' harsh language, the role and mandate of the air exclusion zone is considerably less warlike than had appeared when John Major first declared its impending imposition a week ago. At the time, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, declared that the ban would be to 'prevent Saddam Hussein's helicopters and fixed wing aircraft from zapping his own people'.
However, there have been no confirmed reports of such attacks for over a month. The air exclusion zone therefore is not to protect the Shia from attack. Its purpose, official spokesmen said, is to permit RAF and US Air Force aircraft a free hand to monitor Iraqi compliance with UN resolution 688, which forbids repression of the Iraqi population.
The shift is in presentation. Yet the brandishing of an iron fist in a softer glove suggests legal and political reservations. The decision to resume military action has horrified international legal experts, because to the failure to seek any specific approval from the Council. Unlike Iraq's obstruction of UN weapons inspectors, the suppression of the Shia is not covered by the UN Gulf war ceasefire resolution, which gives broad latitude to military action. Resolution 688 does not authorise any recourse to force to ensure the Iraqis are not repressing their people.
Politically, the Western coalition forces have had to soothe Saudi sensibilities about the way the exclusion zone was announced without giving the Saudis enough time to consult friends and neighbours. Other friendly Arab states had to be reassured that this was not a first move to divide up Iraq, an action that would create a dangerous precedent in the region and weaken what is seen as a bulwark against the far greater longer- term threat from Iran.
President Bush's belated initiative to protect the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and insurgent Shia population is widely interpreted as an attempt to bolster his re-election campaign.
At a White House news conference, Mr Bush said that 'the coalition is also informing Iraq's government that in order to facilitate these monitoring efforts, it is establishing a no-fly zone for all Iraqi fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft'.
The US aircraft carrier Independence with F-14 and F-18 fighters and E-2C radar aircraft on board has been moving towards Iraq in recent days and the US Air Force also has F-15s in the area.
The UN Security Council moved meanwhile to demarcate the border between Iraq and Kuwait for the first time, and to pledge to defend the new border by 'all necessary measures', overruling Iraqi objections.
Force may have to be used to put down markers for the new border and to defend it, as it hands to Kuwait several oilfields and the southern portion of the city of Uum Qasr. The oilfields and that part of the city were in Iraqi hands before the Gulf war, but are now in a demilitarised zone.
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