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Saddam's opponents ask for allied air umbrella to be extended

IRAQI opposition leaders, meeting the US government in Washington, believe President George Bush is likely to ban Iraq from using helicopters and fixed- wing aircraft against Kurdish and Shia rebels. The six-member delegation, which includes the Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, was scheduled to meet James Baker, the US Secretary of State, yesterday and Brent Scowcroft, the US National Security Adviser, today.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war the US said it would shoot down any Iraqi fixed-wing military aircraft. The use of helicopters was also banned north of the 36th parallel, which is patrolled by US, British and French aircraft. An air raid by Iranian bombers on an Iranian dissident camp at Baquba led the Pentagon to drop its ban.

Hoshyar Zebari, a senior adviser to Mr Barzani, said the delegation was in Washington 'to find out how committed the Americans are to political change in Iraq'. He said the allies had over- emphasised ceasefire resolutions concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and neglected other Iraqi ceasefire violations such as the economic blockade of the Kurdish provinces.

Mr Zebari said the allied air umbrella over northern Kurdistan was essential 'until there is political change in Baghdad'. The Kurds have asked for the air umbrella to be extended further south. Other requests by the delegation include the establishment of a safe haven for the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and the unfreezing of some Iraqi assets for use in Kurdistan.

The administration is likely to be more responsive to the Iraqi opposition following the crisis over the access of UN inspectors to the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad. Although they were allowed to search the building yesterday, the exclusion of US, British and French inspectors has accentuated Saddam Hussein's resurgence. President Bush, influenced by this week's polls showing Americans in favour of military action against Iraq, is considering increasing the pressure on Baghdad, but without launching an all-out war.

A further incentive for the White House to back the Shia and Kurds is the support they are receiving from Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the Democratic candidates, who accuse President Bush of abandoning them to President Saddam. Nevertheless, the US opposes Kurdish independence, in order to maintain good relations with Turkey, its chief regional ally.

Mr Talabani said the Kurds were also in need of weapons. 'We are in great need of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons' he said. Iraq still has 2,000 tanks and 500,000 soldiers, some 100,000 of which monitor the blockade line that seals off Kurdistan.