Iraq bars UN plane from its airports

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IRAQ enforced a no-fly zone of its own yesterday over the central part of the country where President Saddam Hussein's writ extends, as 200 Iraqi raiders crossed the Kuwaiti border and seized armaments, including surface-to- surface missiles.

A plane chartered by UN weapons inspectors was denied permission to land in Baghdad. Officials and inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) were left stranded in Bahrain waiting for flight clearance. Iraq had notified the UN office in Baghdad on Thursday of its decision to ban all flights. It complained that the United States, Britain and France had refused to allow Iraqi Airways to resume flights - one of the sanctions imposed on Iraq as part of the Gulf war ceasefire resolutions.

On the Kuwaiti border, the United Nations Iraqi-Kuwaiti Observation Mission (Unikom) spokesman, Abdellatif Kabbaj, said the Iraqis crossed the border with Kuwait at 7.10am local time in heavy transport vehicles, and seized armaments including four surface-to-surface missiles, before returning to Iraq.

The Unikom chief at Umm Qasr, Major-General Dibuama, instructed the head of the Unikom liaison office in Baghdad to request an urgent meeting at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to protest over the incident.

On Friday the UN Security Council warned Iraq it would face serious consequences if it did not lift the landing ban. The council said that Iraq was obliged under the same ceasefire resolutions to allow weapons inspectors to use their own aircraft.

It further said the ban would seriously impede the work of inspectors monitoring Iraq's compliance with its obligation to neutralise its weapons of mass destruction. UN relief officials also said the ban would delay the arrival of food and emergency medicines in Iraq.

In Baghdad, President Saddam's spokesman declared that the West was not telling the truth when it said Baghdad yielded to its pressure over missiles in southern Iraq. 'The criminal (President George) Bush and his clique have issued a new futile warning to Iraq,' said the Defence Ministry newspaper, al-Qadissiyah in an editorial.

The US, shrugging off President Saddam's latest blustering in Baghdad, has made plain that the next time the Iraqi leader violates the no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel in Iraq, there will be no prior warnings - just an immediate military strike to punish him.

Now that this latest run-in with President Saddam appears to be over, the general conclusion in Washington is that domestic difficulties prompted his defiance. Once again, officials believe, President Saddam was forced to act to deflect public attention from the growing hardships of daily life by creating a crisis with the allies.

More such confrontations are likely after president-elect Bill Clinton takes office in nine days' time. But there is not the slightest indication that a Democratic adminstration, even one which avows domestic policy is its top priority, will take a softer line.

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press programme yesterday, the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, said he had 'no doubt' Mr Clinton would be as ready to use military means as President Bush has been. The view of the minority leader, Senator Robert Dole, who after 20 January will be senior Republican representative in Washington, is the same.

Indeed, co-ordination between incoming and outgoing foreign policy teams has been as smooth as any presidential transition here in memory. The White House statement on Saturday which warned that 'no further warnings will be issued if Iraq violates the requirements of the 6 January demarche', is understood to have been elaborated in consultation with Mr Clinton's senior advisers.

Nor does Washington - for the time being at least - appear greatly exercised by the other irritant from Baghdad, its insistence that United Nations inspectors and other officials use Iraqi, not UN planes, to visit the country. This was 'a low-level challenge', a Pentagon official said. It should be settled through the UN in New York. If the stand-off continues, however, the officials talk openly about imposing still broader no-fly zones on Iraqi territory.

LONDON - A United Nations spokesman in Kuwait said some 200 Iraqis crossed the Kuwaiti border early yesterday and seized armaments, including surface-to- surface missiles, the Kuwaiti news agency Kuna said, Reuter reports. The Iraqis crossed the border at 7.10am local time in heavy transport vehicles, Kuna said, quoting the spokesman for the United Nations Iraqi-Kuwaiti Observation Mission, Abdellatif Kabbaj. Mr Kabbaj said the Iraqi force seized armaments in trenches on the Kuwaiti side, including four surface-to-surface missiles. The Iraqi troops later returned to Iraq, Mr Kabbaj said.