Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, argued yesterday that incidents of Iraq firing on British and American warplanes in the so-called no-fly zones in the north and south of the country did not constitute a violation of the resolution adopted by the Security Council nearly two weeks ago.
His remarks settled nerves after the White House signalled on Monday it considered Iraq had committed a "material breach" of the resolution that gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to disarm and cooperate with inspectors. Fears were raised that America would use the attacks to justify war.
"Let me say that I don't think the council will say this is in contravention of the resolution." Mr Annan said.
He was responding to remarks made by the White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who said: "The United States believes firing upon our aircraft in the no-fly zone or on British aircraft is a violation. It is a material breach."
Paragraph 8 of resolution 1441 says Baghdad cannot "take or threaten hostile acts" against a UN member "seeking to uphold any council resolution". But other members of the council are likely to insist the resolution pertains only to the inspections and the prospect of ending sanctions on Iraq should it surrender all weapons of mass destruction.
The no-fly zones, set up after the end of the Gulf War, to protect minority Iraqi communities in the north and south, have never been formally sanctioned in a UN resolution.
The decision by Mr Annan to speak out on the issue reflects his concern Washington may be seeking the earliest possible opportunity to identify a mis-step by Iraq and use it to justify unilateral military action against Baghdad. The same fear is shared by Russia, France and other members.
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