WASHINGTON -- Heavily armed fighter jets from the United States, Britain and France will begin patrolling southern Iraq this morning to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft over the region, President Bush announced yesterday.
Declaration of a "no-fly" zone to protect Shiite insurgents and refugees in the marshlands of southern Iraq also was delivered to Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul al-Amir Al-Anbari, in a communication from U.S., British, French and Russian envoys. It said that as of 10:15 a.m. (EDT) today Iraq must keep all aircraft out of airspace south of the 32nd parallel.
The allied ultimatum brought a defiant response from Baghdad, although Mr. Al-Anbari also countered with a vague proposal to form a "wise men committee," of members from the U.N. Security Council and from the region, to review the situation in southern Iraq. This group would "defuse the crisis as well as establish the truth as Iraq has been saying it," he said.
Despite the declared goal of stopping Iraqi repression in the south, U.S. military officials were at a loss yesterday to articulate clearly how this would be accomplished through round-the-clock combat air patrols or how the success of the military action would be measured.
The Bush administration compared its action in the south to a flying restriction north of the 36th parallel in Kurdish-populated northern Iraq. But U.S. military officials noted that the announcement stopped short of designating a similar "safe haven" for the Shiites, in which all Iraqi military activity would be prohibited.
Since last summer, Iraqi troops and aircraft have been deterred by the allies from crossing into a designated Kurdish security zone in the north.
Although combat air patrols may inhibit President Saddam Hussein's ability to spot and target Shiite rebel strongholds in Iraq's marshes, "we are not focusing on the ground operation at this time," Marine Lt. Gen. Martin L. Brandtner, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
He reasoned that allied resolve to use air power to control Iraqi air space and monitor Iraqi military activity "is going to convince him" to stop repressing Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish populations.
But Rear Adm. Michael W. Cramer, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the continued presence of 60,000 Iraqi troops in the south, including tank divisions and other mechanized units, represented a "very substantial capability" to defeat poorly armed Shiite rebels.
The operation, named Southern Watch, will mark the first return of Western military forces across Iraq's southern border since the U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi troops northward out of Kuwait early last year.
The Pentagon had already begun dispatching "small numbers" of additional aircraft from U.S. bases to Saudi Arabia to beef up an allied force that exceeds 150 warplanes, including the air wing assigned to the carrier USS Independence, now in the Persian Gulf.
Arab allies of the United States in the war against Iraq -- including Egypt and Syria -- have been among those warning against an attempt to partition Iraq and the president seemed sensitive to that criticism when he said yesterday: "We seek Iraq's compliance, not its partition."
Mr. Bush and other senior U.S. officials took pains to emphasize that the military operation -- which would at least protect Shiite rebels from Iraqi air strikes -- did not mark a dramatic policy reversal for an administration that made no attempt to aid the Shiites as Iraqi forces crushed their rebellion, which erupted at the end of the gulf war.
The president also rejected suggestions that renewed military action in Iraq was in any way intended to improve his chances of re-election. "I don't think the other side will try to put a political spin on this," he said. "I'm not worried about the politics of it at all."
His Democratic rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, was informed of the action yesterday by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
He voiced support for the allied action, calling it "an important signal to Saddam that the world community will insist on his full compliance with all relevant U.N. resolutions."
Explaining the timing of the reaction to the siege of the Shiites in southern Iraq, senior administration officials argued that the extent of "systematic human rights abuses" was not well-documented until Aug. 11, when the U.N. Security Council received the report of a special U.N. Human Rights Commission investigation. And they cited U.S. intelligence reports that aggression against the Shiites began escalating in April, when Baghdad realized it could fly combat planes in the south with impunity.
"What we have seen in the last few months is a qualitative difference in the level and form of the repression," one senior official said. "That information has come in, we consulted . . . the coalition and now we have a consensus to take these steps to deal with it."