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Iraq 'not seeking conflict with US'

THE IRAQI ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, denied in New York last night that his government was deliberately seeking a new military confrontation with the United States over flying rights in the southern tier of his country.

Following the shooting down of an Iraqi MiG over the no-fly zone beneath the 32nd parallel in Iraq on Sunday, Mr Hamdoon refuted US claims that the pilot had sought to defy US instructions that he leave the area and therefore provoke the clash. He added that Baghdad had decided against lodging an official complaint over the incident at the UN.

'I don't think Iraq is pushing for an escalation. There is no reason for Iraq to do this,' he said. 'No wise person would seek military confrotation, especially in view of the overwhelming military superiority of the US.'

American fighters had intercepted and chased away Iraqi warplanes which ventured into the no-fly zone over southern Iraq for on Mondaya second consecutive day, a United States military spokesman said yesterday.

This followed the downing of the Iraqi MiG by a US F-16 on Sunday and coincided with Iraq's formal rejection of the UN-imposed air exclusion zone.

Colonel Ron Sconyers, spokesman for US forces regional command in Riyadh, said Iraqi warplanes on Monday flew up to 20 miles south of the 32nd parallel which marks the limit of the zone. The aircraft immediately withdrew after being intercepted by American warplanes and 'there was no firing', he said.

Col Sconyers said the US, French and British forces policing the no-fly zone had been on heightened alert since Sunday's clash, but the number of patrols had not been stepped up. Allied warplanes flew more than 100 sorties a day when the zone was first imposed on 27 August to protect the Shia population from President Saddam Hussein's forces, but that has fallen to less than 30.

The Iraqi action prompted the Pentagon to order the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk back to the Gulf. It had been dispatched to the Somali coast to help in relief operations, leaving the US without a carrier in the Gulf for the first time since last year's war.

Baghdad has repeatedly denounced the zone as a plot to partition the country but had apparently given it de facto recognition by not sending its warplanes into it. However, the Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, on Monday announced Iraq's formal rejection of the zone, saying: 'Iraq does not recognise the ban imposed against its aviation and considers this an attack against its sovereignty.'