Baghdad courts Shias' loyalty

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BAGHDAD - Iraq's leaders, aware that their air force will be no match for Western planes policing a southern 'no-fly' zone, are drumming up Shia Muslim loyalty to preserve their control on the ground.

Saddam Hussein has sent senior members of his Baath Party to the south to muster public support against Western plans to prevent Iraqi planes from attacking Shias. Official newspapers said three of President Saddam's closest advisers, including the Defence Minister, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, were touring Shia cities below the 32nd parallel, the area the United States, Britain and France are expected to start patrolling from tomorrow. The government wants to avoid repeating its experience in the north, where a similar exclusion zone helped break its grip on Kurdistan.

Newspapers published a flood of telegrams of loyalty to President Saddam from marshland tribal leaders and mass rallies organised in several Shia centres in the south. The papers stressed that Baghdad was certain of the loyalty of the Shias, but officials have expressed fears that the Western allies intend to free the south of central government authority.

'This criminal plan (the 'no-fly zone') aims at carving up Iraq on a sectarian and racial basis,' newspapers quoted the Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, as saying at the start of a visit to Yemen. 'Iraq categorically rejects it and will resist it with all means.'

'The answer is here in Iraq. The south, like the centre and the north, has the ability to defend its identity,' said the newspaper.

Officials have stopped short of saying whether Iraq will defy the West's 'no-fly' zone, but Baghdad has made it clear it will not relinquish authority over the south. 'We fear the army deserters and criminals, backed by Iran, will use the presence of allied aircraft over their heads and try to spread out,' said an official who declined to be named. 'That we will never allow to happen. We have the means not to let this vicious dream materialise,' he said.

ABU DHABI - The US aircraft carrier Independence headed up the Gulf yesterday ready to help enforce the 'no-fly' ban on Iraqi warplanes. In Kuwait, the US military said it would begin joint war games with Kuwaiti forces near the Iraqi frontier next week.

The Independence, with at least 75 warplanes, is one of about 20 US warships in the Gulf. It sailed from Abu Dhabi towards Kuwait after five days of shore leave for its 5,000 crew.