A day after US jets attacked an Iraqi air defence installation which had earlier fired missiles against them in the northern "no-fly" zone, Baghdad's Vice President said Iraq would continue to fire at aircraft entering the zones in the country's north and south. He claimed Iraq's planes were operating once more in the two areas, in defiance of the Allied ban. "We are doing this right now; Iraqi planes are, in effect, flying in a normal fashion in Iraqi air space," Taha Yassin Ramadan said last night, underlining how Iraq has never recognised the two zones. This constitutes the first breach of the "no-fly" regimes since 1996.
The first zone was imposed in 1991 to protect the Kurdish population in the north, the second a year later to safeguard Shia Muslims in the south.
This latest defiance, less than two weeks after the end of the American and British air strikes, is generally seen as another ploy to present Iraq as the victim of bullying by Washington and London, and to bolster President Saddam's case for a lifting of United Nations sanctions. But his adversaries were not rising to the bait.
The Pentagon said US overflights, suspended yesterday because of bad weather, would resume when conditions improved. British officials said: "It is not out of character for Saddam to try and provoke". Both countries rejected Iraqi claims, repeated yesterday, that one Western plane had been shot down during the earlier attacks, in which four Iraqi soldiers are said to have been killed.
However, if Baghdad is seeking to rebuild support in Arab capitals, it is going about it in a strange way. The Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, lashed out at the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, for blaming Iraq rather than the US for the four days of air attacks before Christmas.
In another setback for Iraq, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers set for today, which might have criticised the military strikes and recommended that Arab countries ignore international sanctions, was postponed until 24 January. Among the Arab countries, only Libya has come out unequivocally in support of Iraq.
Neither is the invective helping Iraq's attempts to exploit the split among UN Security Council members on how to handle President Saddam. France, which broadly supports a lifting of sanctions, has drawn Iraq's fire by suggesting that the spending of oil income should be permanently monitored by the UN to prevent Baghdad using the money to buy arms.
Lately there have even been hints from Iraqi officials of an end to the oil-for-food programme, which allows Iraq to sell up to $5.25bn of oil every six months for essential food and medical supplies. Iraq claims it cannot sell that amount of oil because of low oil prices and a ban on purchases of equipment to maintain the fields.
Britain and the US say President Saddam is deliberately under-using the programme but, none the less, they have made a proposal to broaden the scheme.