Allies threaten air strikes on Iraq

AMID last-ditch efforts to defuse the crisis between the international community and Iraq, the US, Britain and France were preparing to issue a 72-hour ultimatum of renewed military action to Baghdad, diplomatic sources said yesterday.

The military strategy being discussed calls for symbolic air strikes against selected military targets as well as buildings the UN has earmarked for destruction. One of the first acts of the Gulf war allies would be to order Iraq's air space closed for all Iraqi fixed-wing and helicopter flights. American A-10 'Warthog' anti-tank aircraft would be sent to strike at any ground movements by Iraqi military, forces, diplomatic sources said.

Rolf Ekeus, the head of the UN special commission on Iraq, stiffened the UN position yesterday, saying he wanted unconditional access to Iraq's suspected military planning headquarters in a Ministry of Agriculture building. Because of the violence directed at inspectors who had maintained a vigil outside the central Baghdad building for 18 days, his proposals for a compromise solution involving 'neutral' inspectors were no longer on offer, he said. Mr Ekeus said he was continuing his talks with Iraq's UN Ambassador, Abdul Amir Al-Anbari, however.

He described the mood of their discussions as 'serious', but was adamant that there would be no more UN compromises with Iraq on the range of access it should have to suspected Iraqi military buildings.

The UN Special Commission, which has close links with Western intelligence, is convinced that the Ministry of Agriculture building is the archive of Iraq's weapons programme and that to lose it would be an enormous blow to Saddam Hussein's hopes of rebuilding his military machine. UN inspectors say the building, which reportedly has four floors underground, houses blueprints, scientific research and development findings, and procurement data.

The air strikes and other actions being planned are intended to bolster the Security Council's authority in Iraq, by forcibly reminding Baghdad that it must submit to the terms of the UN ceasefire resolution 687, adopted at the end of the Gulf war.

The likelihood of military action being taken rose yesterday, as Mr Ekeus ordered the team of five military inspectors who had confronted Iraqi demonstrators outside the Ministry of Agriculture to leave for Bahrain. Security men held back hundreds of demonstrators who shouted 'Bush, Bush, listen well, we all love Saddam Hussein' and other anti-US and anti-UN slogans when the team left their hotels in the centre of Baghdad. Some 65 UN inspectors, including aerial surveillance experts, chemical weapons experts and support staff, remain in Baghdad.

The allies would also step up the psychological pressure on President Saddam's regime by increasing their military presence in the north of the country where the Kurds have been under severe pressure due to a blockade by Iraqi forces. That action would be aimed at persuading Iraq to sign a memorandum of understanding with the UN that would allow UN forces to stay in the country providing humanitarian assistance.

By leaking details of the military objectives, the allies hope to persuade Iraq that it would be better off compromising over the inspection of the Ministry of Agriculture building in Baghdad, rather than lose some of the concessions it has extracted in the terms of the ceasefire resolution.

When Iranian fighter planes suddenly attacked Iranian rebels inside Iraq last year, the Allies gave tacit permission to Baghdad to start flying combat missions on its border with Iran, even though it violated the ban on flights of all fixed-wing aircraft. Since then Iraq has used fixed-wing aircraft to attack Shia rebels in the south. It also used military attack helicopters against rebel forces after the ceasefire, again with tacit Allied approval.

The strategy is aimed at persuading Iraq to allow unrestricted access for the UN rather than face renewed military conflict in which Iraq would lose all the concessions it had gained.

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