Baghdad accepts exclusion zone with reservations

BAGHDAD (Reuter/AFP) - Iraq acknowledged yesterday that it was halting flights over the Shia Muslim south as ordered by the Gulf war allies. It said it would fight if attacked but would not play into its enemies' hands over the West's new air exclusion zone south of the 32nd parallel.

'We reserve the right to choose our own way of combating this aggression,' said a statement by President Saddam Hussein and the country's top leadership. 'We must not let our colonialist and Zionist enemies achieve their base aims by choosing the time that suits them.'

Iraq's ambassador to the European Community, Zaid Haidar, said in Brussels that his country would fly no combat missions in the zone unless attacked. He said: 'We confirm that there will be no flight with combat mission unless we are attacked on land, air or sea or there is aggression from the Iranian side. If there is an attack, we shall respond.'

Iraq has denounced the air exclusion zone as a step towards a territorial carve-up in which it could be divided into three states along linguistic and religious lines: a Shia Muslim south, a Kurdish north and a Sunni Muslim centre around Baghdad.

Baghdad has released 71 Kuwaiti prisoners of war, the Arab League Secretary-General, Esmat Abdel Meguidnot told Egypt's al-Ahram newspaper yesterday.

WASHINGTON - The National Security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, said yesterday Washington did 'not anticipate' that President Saddam would challenge the exclusion order, AP reports. He said he was unaware of any unusual activity by Iraqi aircraft as the deadline approached.