Saddam tests US resolve on no-fly zone

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Iraq yesterday tested the ban on flights over the southern half of the country by sending helicopters into the no-fly zone to pick up 1,000 Iraqi pilgrims returning from the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Iraqi national news agency said: "A number of helicopters were sent yesterday and this morning to the border area of Arar to transfer Iraqi pilgrims from the city of Arar to all the provinces of the country." Responding to the defiance of the no-fly zone imposed in 1993, Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said: "We will respond appropriately, but we are not going to shoot down any helicopters."

The move appears to be motivated by disappointment that President Clinton's second administration shows no sign of rehabilitating Iraq. This was made clear in a hardline speech by Madeleine Albright, the incoming Secretary of State, in March.

Babel, the Iraqi newspaper owned by President Saddam's son Uday, says: "America is the loser." It notes that on 9 April Iraqi Airways defied sanctions by flying 104 pilgrims aged over 50 to Mecca.

A further motive may be that Iraq is about to celebrate the 60th birthday of President Saddam Hussein with countrywide parades, notably in his home town of Tikrit 100 miles north of Baghdad. Al-Qadissiya, a Baghdad newspaper, referred to him as "the pride of Iraq and the Arab nation."

It is doubtful if the symbolic defiance of the no-fly zone by Iraq will have much effect unless it resumes regular civilian flights between cities like Baghdad and Basra. The purpose of the ban on Iraqi flights in the south of the country was nominally to prevent repression of Iraqi Shias in the marshes, but there is no sign that it has had any effect. The marshes themselves have been systematically drained by the government.

President Saddam seemed to be tightening his grip on the country last year. Lt Gen Hussein Kamel, his son-in-law, was murdered after returning to Baghdad from exile in Amman, Jordan. A conspiracy to launch a military coup was crushed in June.

In August Iraqi tanks re-entered Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time in five years to support one side in the Iraqi civil war. Some 120 members of a CIA-backed Iraqi opposition group were executed. At the end of the year Iraq was allowed to resume limited oil exports worth pounds 1.2bn every six months.

But this year has not gone so well. President Clinton has disappointed any expectations of a relaxation of the US pressure on Iraq. Rolf Ekeus, the UN arms control monitor, said last weekend that Iraq seems determined to keep its ability to make weapons of mass destruction. This makes an end to sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council unlikely.

Apart from exceptional circumstances like the haj, it is unlikely that Iraq can persuade any neighbouring country to give it permission to land its aircraft. It will therefore continue to depend on the overland routes through Jordan and Turkey.