WASHINGTON -- U.S. fighter pilots flying out of central Saudi Arabia stepped up patrol missions over Iraq yesterday after U.S. intelligence forces found that Iraqi air force jets had resumed flight operations within their own borders.
A Bush administration official called the Iraqi flights -- involving about six fighter jets flying to and from air fields inside the country -- "a direct violation" of the tentative cease-fire pact hammered out by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his Iraqi counterparts.
The rapid U.S. response, which came only a day after the Iraqi flights were detected, appears certain to put further pressure on the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as Kurdish and Shiite insurgencies continue throughout his war-ravaged country.
General Schwarzkopf, the commander of allied troops in the region, dispatched military messengers yesterday to warn the Iraqi military command that continued flights of Iraqi aircraft could jeopardize the tentative cease-fire agreement between the allies and Iraq.
At the same time, commanders ordered significantly increased sorties by U.S. F-15E and F-16 aircraft from the largest air base in the gulf theater of operations, said Col. Cash Jaszczak, commander of the 4404th Tactical Fighting Wing. The U.S. warplanes roared into the skies over Iraq throughout the day yesterday.
"He [Mr. Hussein] is trying to do something to waffle," Colonel Jaszczak said in an interview at an allied air base in central Saudi Arabia. "We are demonstrating our presence . . . our resolve."
At the Pentagon, a top military official confirmed that U.S. air patrols had been increased but declined to explain why. Another senior defense official, however, said that the stepped-up flights were intended to convey the implicit threat that any Iraqi aircraft going aloft could be shot down.
"They have to think about it," said the official.
The allies' decision to increase aircraft operations is the latest move in an escalating war of nerves between the U.S.-led coalition and the Hussein government, which has been slow to submit to a range of cease-fire conditions.
Thursday, a senior military official in Saudi Arabia said that U.S. ground forces had been sent back to reoccupy forward positions in Iraq from which they had begun to withdraw. That move came a day after President Bush, in an apparent expansion of the cease-fire terms, warned Mr. Hussein that his forces could not use helicopters to quell the widespread uprisings against his regime. And administration officials warned Iraq last week that the use of chemical weapons against insurgents could bring a resumption of allied air strikes against Iraq.
Yesterday, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that U.S. troops were moving around in southern Iraq to "demonstrate our presence." But he cautioned against speculation about possible military operations in Iraq.
Pentagon officials said that the Iraqis were continuing to use helicopters as gunships against insurgents, despite Mr. Bush's warning.
Officials have acknowledged that the use of some helicopters was permitted by the allies under the terms of the temporary cease-fire. But in an interview Wednesday, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said that the agreement clearly prohibited any flights of Iraq's fixed-wing aircraft.
"If we thought there was any threat to allied force," Iraqi aircraft would "obviously" be subject to being shot down, Mr. Cheney said.