With 72 hours until the handover of power to Bill Clinton, US officials yesterday made plain their impatience with Baghdad in the wake of belligerent rhetoric from President Saddam at the weekend and military clashes in the air and on the ground.
The latest flashpoint was the no-fly zone in the north of Iraq, where US F-16 fighter jets early yesterday intercepted and shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 aircraft. Officials said British and French planes were flying in a joint patrol mission over the area when the plane was downed.
The Pentagon confirmed that during the same mission, a US F- 4G Wild Weasel plane had fired a Harm missile at an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile battery which had locked its radar on to the allied planes. It was not clear whether the battery had been destroyed.
The US also felt itself provoked by an illegal incursion into northern Kuwait by Iraqi personnel which led to a firefight with a Kuwaiti patrol, leaving one of the infiltrators dead. Nor was there any resolution yesterday to the argument between Baghdad and the United Nations over flights into Iraq of UN weapons inspectors.
Marlin Fitzwater, Mr Bush's spokesman, said these and other incidents meant there had been a 'ratcheting up of the concerns of the US about the intentions of Iraq'. The President, who spent his last weekend in office at Camp David, conferred yesterday with allied leaders, including John Major, and the French President, Francois Mitterrand, before reaching a decision on further allied action.
Adding fuel to US impatience was the televised speech delivered yesterday by President Saddam to the Iraqi people to mark the second anniversary of the start of the allied ground offensive to expel his forces from Kuwait. In it, Mr Saddam vowed to confront the allies again, saying: 'The aggressors will fail in their evil purposes.'
Signalling that President Saddam had reached the end of the rope in terms of averting further punitive action, Dick Cheney, the US Defense Secretary, said there was no longer any doubt that Iraqi provocation of the allies was deliberate. 'There's a whole pattern of behaviour just in the last few hours that would seem to indicate that he is determined to create a confrontation in the closing days of the Bush administration to coincide with the anniversary of the end of the air war two years ago and the start of the new Clinton administration,' he said.
The Iraq crisis is already overshadowing the Clinton inaugural festivities, which opened yesterday when Mr Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, rode by bus from Monticello, former home of Thomas Jefferson, to Washington. Mr Gore yesterday underlined that there would be no change in policy towards Iraq after President Bush relinquishes office.
'It's a terrible mistake to allow Saddam to chip away at the edges' of the UN resolutions, Mr Gore insisted. 'He has to understand clearly himself that he's going to have to comply.' He added that there was 'no fundemental difference whatsoever' between the old and new administrations' policies towards Baghdad.
There now seems little doubt that Mr Clinton will be having to deal with the Iraqi crisis from the moment of his swearing in at noon on Wednesday. Nor does it seem likely that the problem will go away quickly during the first weeks of his administration.
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