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War plans aim at assuaging Marsh Arab plight: Christopher Bellamy, Defence Correspondent, outlines the allied options for intervention in Iraq

THE CABINET will meet in London today to discuss whether the RAF should take part in a United States-led air attack on Iraq. If British planes do go in, they will almost certainly not attack Baghdad but act in support of the Shia Muslims in southern Iraq. The British component is likely to be 'small but significant', say defence sources.

Foreign Office sources yesterday said that the Iraqi attacks on the Shias with fixed-wing aircraft in defiance of Gulf war ceasefire terms created 'an intolerable situation that you can't allow to continue'. Foreign Office, military and other sources all hinted that the centre of gravity was not the success of United Nations inspection teams in Baghdad, but the plight of the Shias in the south.

Contingency plans exist for two options: precision attacks on buildings in Baghdad or the provision of air cover for the Shias. Emphasis is moving away from bombing Baghdad towards the latter option, which would also involve a ban on all Iraqi flights south of the 32nd parallel.

There has been speculation that ministries in Baghdad might be attacked if UN inspectors are denied access, but this would bring a risk of civilian casualties and, even if successful, would destroy the very evidence of Iraqi unconventional weapons plans which the UN wants.

During the Gulf war the only aircraft which attacked targets in heavily defended metropolitan Baghdad were the US F-117 'Stealth' fighters, known as 'Nighthawks'. These are virtually invisible to radar and in the Gulf war did not suffer a scratch. Other nations would be excluded from such action, except in a supporting role. Military sources say that a 'no-go option for the protection of the Shias in the south' looks more likely, aimed at Iraqi air defences and allowing other air forces to join in.

The Iraqi air force is now flying as intensively as it was before the 1991 war. Recently, armed training aircraft and Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack planes have been harrying the Shia population in the land of the Marsh Arabs. They are surrounded by five Iraqi divisions, which have been launching fighting patrols into the marshes and bombarding settlements with artillery fire, as well as launching air attacks.

In addition to shooting down any Iraqi aircraft which fly, the plan would allow air attacks on Iraqi radar installations, surface-to-air missile sites and airfields, thus fulfilling the role of a punitive or warning strike.

The US has 18 ships in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and north Arabian Sea, and seven in the Red Sea, including the Independence carrier battle group and four amphibious ships participating in exercises off Kuwait. Each carrier can launch 20 F-14, 20 F/A-18 and 20 A-6 combat aircraft. The carriers lead battle groups that can launch cruise missiles.

In Saudi Arabia, the US has about 20 F-4Gs with anti-radar missiles, 20 F-15E ground attack planes, 20 F-15C fighters, 20 F-16 multi-role aircraft and 12 F-117s, plus a large fleet of tankers for air-to-air refuelling. Some 100 of these combat aircraft are concentrated at Dhahran, with U-2 spy planes at Taif near Mecca.

Overall control of an air offensive could be mounted with two E-3 Awacs early warning and command aircraft based in Turkey and two in Riyadh. The present force is only 10 per cent of the strength attained at the outbreak of the Gulf war when the allies flew 2,000 sorties on the first night, but could be sufficient to attack a limited area in the south.

If the US force is boosted with British and French aircraft, it would give the operation the necessary 'international' flavour. The Saudis are understood to be reluctant to become directly involved again, but would provide bases for the Western air forces. The RAF apparently has contingency plans for a significant contribution, probably using Tornado GR1A reconnaissance planes and GR1 bombers equipped with the Tiald (Thermal Imaging and Laser Designation System) pods first used in the Gulf war.

Cutting off Iraqi forces in the south and low-level attacks on Iraqi ground forces are unlikely options. An attack on the air defences in the south would be a limited and symbolic action, but would help the Shias and clear the way for subsequent action if Iraq continues defying the UN.

(Map and graphic omitted)