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The thinking behind Iraq's move: Charles Richards, Middle East Editor, analyses the motives of Saddam Hussein in his confrontation with the allies

WHAT IS Saddam Hussein up to, and how are the Americans, and their British and French allies hanging on to their coat-tails, going to react?

The declared position of the Iraqi government has been spelt out by the Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz: Iraq does not recognise the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, it considers the zone has no legal basis since it was not mandated in any UN resolution but was imposed by diktat of the US, Britain and France, and Iraq has the right to exercise its sovereignty by flying its aircraft anywhere within its borders.

This elucidation of Iraq's position does not, however, explain the timing of Iraq's latest actions. The no-fly zone has been in place since August. For months, until the end of the year, the Iraqis had not challenged it either in their rhetoric or in their actions.

The change came on 27 December. US F-16s shot down an Iraqi MiG-25. No parachute was observed, so the pilot was presumed killed. The MiG, one of two, was 30 miles inside the no-fly zone.

Since then, Iraq has moved up transportable batteries of SA-2 and SA-3 air defence missiles, according to Western sources (and all information necessarily comes through US and allied sources). SA-2s and 3s are ancient technology - they are the same type as the Egyptian missiles knocked out by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war - even if they have been modernised. Iraq in 1989 claimed to have modified them with infra- red guidance systems, dubbing them 'Barq' ('Lightning') and 'Fahd-III'. The threat posed by them to state-of-the-art Western aircraft is negligible. And being obsolete they are equally expendable to the Iraqis if the allies were to attack them.

At the same time, many more flights by Iraqi aircraft on the edge of the no-fly zone or just inside it have been reported by Western sources. Why, then, has Saddam Hussein felt he could systematically provoke the coalition forces over the past days after such a long period of inertia? Two arguments present themselves.

One, that he is seeking to divert attention from dire economic problems at home. Two, that he has chosen the moment, with an apparent power vacuum in Washington, to throw down the gauntlet to the US. He was targeting in political terms what generals do in war: aim for the crack between interlocking divisions - in this case, the interregnum between two presidents. He may have banked on the outgoing President Bush having his attention largely absorbed with Somalia and Serbia.

This would be a serious miscalculation. There is nothing Mr Bush would like more than to go with a bang, not a whimper. And Bill Clinton is talking tough too.

Saddam Hussein in the past has demonstrated his art of brinkmanship. But he has always pulled back from the brink, except before the Gulf war. When he tried to challenge the no-fly zone in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel, he was told to push off and he did.

President Saddam may be hoping to achieve a lucky strike and knock out an allied aircraft, which he could then portray as a major victory. For the coalition partners, the declaration of the no-fly zone was intended to put pressure on President Saddam's regime. Mr Bush has made no secret of his desire to be rid of Saddam Hussein.

The allies did not seek to ban the flight of Iraqi aircraft to stop them hitting the Shia population in southern Iraq. The no-fly zone was declared to protect allied aircraft that were flying over the area to monitor the situation on the ground. The three allies argued that the legal justification was contained in UN Resolution 688, passed after the end of the Gulf war, which told Iraq not to be beastly to its population.

The distinction is arcane, but it explains why the allies regard the newly-moved missiles - moved since Sunday, say Western sources - as a threat. The ultimatum stipulates that missiles 'that moved into new positions' be withdrawn. This does not include missile batteries which were in position before, which are seen as dormant.

Since the imposition of the no- fly zone, Western sources report, there has been a reduction in Iraqi military operations against the Shia, although the Iraqis have continued with projects to drain the marshes where the resistance sought refuge.

The ultimatum applies now to any threat to allied aircraft. Any other indication of a hostile act, of turning on radar-tracking or -illumination, are likely to invite a High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) from an allied plane. And there is little to stop the allies attacking one of the airfields such as al-Jarrah from which Iraqi planes take off.

Leading article, page 20

(Photograph and map omitted)