Pentagon officials confirmed that the decision to dispatch the Kitty Hawk, with 80 fighter aircraft on board, to the Gulf from waters off the coast of Somalia had been taken in direct response to Sunday's incident when a pair of Iraqi aircraft had violated the UN-imposed, air exclusion zone over southern Iraq.
Having crossed the 32nd parallel, which marks the northern boundary of the no-fly zone, the Iraqi jets were intercepted by two American F-16s. A Pentagon spokesman said that the Iraqis were given a 'verbal warning' but then turned to confront the American aircraft. One Iraqi jet was shot down, apparently with an air-to-air missile. The other Iraqi left the no-fly zone.
Iraq said it reserved the right to respond to 'this aggression . . . in the appropriate manner and at the appropriate time.' Only Yemen joined Iraq in criticising the US action. The Foreign Minister, Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, said it was an example of the 'injustice and double standards' applied by the UN.
American officials believe that the penetration of the no-fly zone - applied under French, British and US sponsorship in late August - was another calculated test by Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, of the international community's resolve in defending UN resolutions.
President Saddam is suspected, in particular, of probing for any weakness in the American stance as power is transferred from President George Bush to President-elect Bill Clinton. Mr Bush said that President Saddam had made a 'big mistake' in violating the flight ban, which was introduced to protect Shia Muslims from repression by President Saddam's forces.
Mr Clinton also spoke strongly in support of the American action, insisting that international pressure on Baghdad would not be allowed to slip. 'Saddam Hussein is mistaken if he believes the United States or the United Nations lacks that resolve,' he said.
During a recent visit to Washington by the British Prime Minister, John Major, both he and Mr Bush indicated their determination not to allow Iraq to get away with any transgression of the UN resolutions.
The Kitty Hawk will arrive in the Gulf in the next few days. The United States would normally have a carrier in the Gulf area but has not done so since the build-up of US troops in Somalia earlier this month.
With its large number of aircraft, the Kitty Hawk will give a considerable boost to the defence of both the no-fly zone in southern Iraq and a second such zone in the north, imposed to protect Kurds. For operations inside Iraq, the United States would much rather use jets from its aircraft carriers than those stationed in Saudi Arabia. Sending jets into combat over Iraq from another Arab country would cause political problems both inside Saudi Arabia and in the region.Reuse content