Second missile strike wraps up US mission

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After its initial sea- and air-launched cruise attack on Tuesday, the United States followed up at dawn yesterday with a second instalment of 17 missiles, delivered from warships and a submarine in the Persian Gulf, in what the Pentagon described as "mopping up" against four of the 14 original targets - all command and control air defence facilities to the south of the Iraqi capital - which may not have been destroyed by the first wave of 27 cruises.

The operation was "successfully completed," the Defense Secretary, William Perry, said as he held long-scheduled talks with his British opposite number, Michael Portillo, representative of the one Western government which has been unequivocal in its support for the air strikes.

Half the Iraqi MiGs stationed south of the 33rd parallel - the new northern boundary of the no-fly zone, south of Baghdad - had already been moved north of that line, he said, while US intelligence had also detected a "general pull back" of Iraqi forces in the Kurdish-populated north, whose incursion had led to this week's American retaliation. But, Mr Perry warned, more than 40,000 men were still in the region, "in a very dangerous position".

France withheld support from President Bill Clinton'sraids and indicated it had not agreed in advance to his extension of the no-fly zone from the 32nd parallel. The US, Britain and France have policed the zone since a US-led coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

Pentagon officials said earlier yesterday that French Mirage jets took part in the first day of patrols of the expanded zone. But Paris said that the Mirages stayed below the 32nd parallel.

Nevertheless, Mr Perry said he expected France to continue to participate in the allied coalition against Iraq. Asked if the alliance was weakening, Mr Perry said: "I am confident the coalition is not weakening. If anything I think the coalition is strengthening and I fully expect the French to continue participation."

The Russian response has been cooler yet. The Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, meeting Klaus Kinkel, his German counterpart, in Bonn yesterday, rejected the German view that the US action in Iraq was an appropriate response to Saddam Hussein's incursion into Kurdistan. Criticising the US sharply for the third time in two days, he said: "It's a very dangerous situation, a precedent for the future. If ... we have a superpower, be it the United States, Europe or Russia, acting on its own initiative to use violence in a region without consulting an international organisation, in this case the UN Security Council, there will be conflict."

Egyptian diplomats at the UN yesterday were reluctant to back an Anglo- American attempt to draft a Security Council resolution that would condemn Iraq's offensive against the Kurds and also call for Iran to stop its involvement in northern Iraq; the Egyptians questioned why there was no mention in the draft of the US attack.

Only Kuwait openly supported the US. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, wealthiest arms customer, dominant military power in the Arabian peninsula, launch pad for the coalition against Iraq in 1991 and the main base for US forces in the Gulf, maintained an official silence.

A Western diplomat in Riyadh said: "[The Saudis] may well not want to respond if they can get away without making an official statement."

Despite other reactions, including downright hostility from some moderate Arab governments, Mr Clinton is currently basking in the usual initial public support for a president who uses American military power to handle an international crisis.

According to an ABC television poll yesterday, four out of five Americans approve of the attack, even though they are sceptical it will achieve much in the long run. Three quarters of them believe President Saddam will continue to violate the terms of the Gulf war ceasefire.

The White House also senses that for all the public disapproval, many critics may be secretly delighted at moves whose main effect is to make life safer for the vulnerable oil states of the Gulf.

But Britain is one of the few to say so in public. "We share the American analysis," Mr Portillo said, citing the threat to regional stability posed by President Saddam and his "proven propensity to invade the territory of his neighbours". If this provocation had gone unanswered, the Iraqi dictator would merely be emboldened to go further. Mr Portillo also endorsed yesterday's fresh strikes. Since Britain participated in enforcing the no-fly zone, a threat to its own planes had been eliminated.