US jet raids `kill 14 Iraqi civilians'

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AMERICAN AIR STRIKES on Iraq have killed 14 civilians and wounded 17 in the south of the country, according to an Iraqi statement, making it the worst incident since almost daily attacks on Iraqi anti- aircraft sites began seven months ago.

The US Central Command in Florida said its planes had attacked two sites in southern Iraq on Sunday when they were fired on by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns. It could not confirm any Iraqi casualties.

The death toll is the highest in Iraq since it started challenging US and British aircraft entrusted with enforcing the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq last December. The Iraqi military statement did not give the location of the targets hit.

The US Central Command said its planes had used "precision guided munitions" to hit a missile battery near Abu Sukhayr, 200 miles south of Baghdad, and a military communications centre near al-Khidr, located 150 miles south-east of the Iraqi capital.

The attacks on Iraqi anti- aircraft sites continued with little publicity while Nato was conducting the war in Kosovo.

Iraq says it does not recognise the no-fly zones imposed by the allies. The previous worst incident was in the southern port of Basra on 25 January, when allied bombs killed 11 people, most of them women and children.

The air strikes have little impact on most ordinary Iraqis or on the stability of the government of President Saddam Hussein, say Iraqi observers outside the country.

Laith Kubba, a commentator, said that the bombing "is not a key issue for most people in Iraq. They talk much more about the chances of getting sanctions lifted."

The bombinghas produced no outcry against the US in the Arab world, where Iraq continues to be isolated. The government in Baghdad may also be concerned that the air attacks - which are nominally defensive, against anti-aircraft positions - have gone on for so long that an increase in their scope would produce no international reaction.

Iraqi diplomacy is focusing on the lifting of sanctions, which were first introduced in 1990. Iraq has succeeded in increasing its oil production significantly in recent months and will exceed the $5.26bn (pounds 3.3bn) ceiling set for the present phase of the UN administered oil-for-food plan, which ends in November.

Last month the Iraqi Oil Minister, Amir Muhammad Rashid, said that his country would be aiming to raise its oil export capacity to 3.5 million barrels a day next year, making it the biggest Opec exporter after Saudi Arabia.