US ready to approve exclusion zone

'ALL at half-cock as usual,' said an official unkindly, and a little unfairly, of the the announcement by President George Bush, expected today, that US, British and French aircraft will patrol the skies of southern Iraq to protect the Iraqi Shias from attacks by Baghdad's aircraft and helicopters.

On board the US aircraft carrier Independence in the Gulf yesterday, Rear- Admiral Brent Bennitt said that, if Iraqi planes defied the allied prohibition by flying south of the 32nd parallel, they would be shot down without warning. A Pentagon spokesman said Iraqi fixed- wing warplanes had been removed 'in the last few days' from the area south of the 32nd parallel.

The confusion over the timing of the announcement has its origin in President Bush's original desire to announce action on Iraq before the Republican convention. News of the decision leaked and the White House then wanted to announce it formally away from the partisan atmosphere of Houston. A further cause of delay was that Saudi Arabia had supported the air exclusion zone from an early stage but wanted to pacify Egyptian and Syrian fears about the disintegration of Iraq.

The establishment of an air umbrella over southern Iraq, similar to that north of the 36th parallel over Kurdistan, was first mentioned publicly at the end of July. The conclusion of the 21-day attempt by United Nations inspectors to enter the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad had ended on 27 July with a compromise that excluded US, British and French inspectors, which Washington regarded as humiliating.

The White House, in the three months before the election, could not afford another such incident, which served only to emphasise that Saddam Hussein was still in power. The administration decided to support the more rigorous enforcement of UN Resolutions 687 and 688. On 13 August Mr Bush and General Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, decided that immediate military action would be taken to support the UN inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction and to protect the Shias of southern Iraq.

It is the speed with which the administration wanted to act, in contrast to its more cautious approach in the build-up to the Gulf war, that caused most of the problems of the past two weeks. It is scarcely surprising that the assent and co-operation of the countries to the south of Iraq to a new confrontation should take time. But, because of a leak to the New York Times just before the Republican convention, every delay has appeared to be the result of divisions within the allied coalition.

The danger of the present confrontation between the allies and Iraq is that - unlike the previous round in 1990-91 - its timing and intensity will be determined in part by President Bush's electoral needs. For all the President's disclaimers about not risking the life of a single US soldier to advance his re-election, the course of the escalation of the confrontation in the past two weeks has underlined the primacy of US domestic political concerns.

The motives of Mr Bush and James Baker, his chief of staff and campaign manager newly translated from the State Department, in confronting Iraq was succinctly summarised by the well-informed columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak last week.

They said: 'The removal of Bush's nemesis (Saddam Hussein) is seen by Baker as one-shot success - the only one - that could transform Bush's campaign overnight.'

President Bush reached the peak of his popularity through victory in the Gulf war in 1991, and polls show 62 per cent of US voters support the removal of President Hussein by military means if he defies the UN.

Mr Evans and Mr Novak conclude: 'Baker's analysis is threaded with his usual political astuteness: play Bush's commander-in-chief's card, his unblemished political asset. That automatically puts the nation's focus on the inexperience of Governor Bill Clinton and his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam war.'

For the moment, the issue of protecting the Shias in the marshes is de-coupled from the UN inspections. But a new inspection team arrives in Baghdad on 31 August, and the US has not modified its determination to bomb government ministries to which the inspectors are denied entry. Renewed bombing was only avoided last week because US intentions were leaked and the British and French stalled. 'The inspectors called it (the inspection of the Ministry of Military Industries) off on their own authority. They didn't want to be seen as pawns in the game,' said one diplomat.

A peculiar aspect of the allied air patrols is that the Iraqis have made only limited use of their air force in the south of the country. Most of the casualties among the Shias in the marshes have been caused by artillery. So long as the patrols are targeted solely against Iraqi planes and helicopters then Saddam Hussein may not challenge them.

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