Remove missiles or face attack, allies warn Iraq Weapons deployed in no-fly zone are ultimatum's target

January 07, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United States and its allies gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 48 hours from yesterday afternoon to remove surface-to-air missiles from a no-fly zone in southern Iraq or face military attack.

The warning, delivered at 5:30 p.m. in New York to Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, was drafted by the United States, France, Britain and Russia, four of the five permanent members of the Security Council. China is the other member.

The four nations also demanded that Iraq stop using the missiles' radar units to track U.S. planes, an action considered hostile since it warns pilots they might be under attack.

Mr. Hamdoon promised to relay the warning to his government and said his country did not seek a confrontation. But he did not say whether Iraq would comply.

"Iraq considers any military movement within its boundaries as a defensive action and its sovereign right because it is within its borders. . . . It is an internal affair," Mr. Hamdoon said. "Iraq has no intention of escalating this or making it into a crisis."

In Washington, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said he would not characterize the message to Baghdad as an ultimatum, but he added, "The message is clear: that those batteries should not be located below the 32nd parallel."

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Yuli P. Vorontsov, tried to play down the possibility of a major conflict between the former Soviet client and the West.

"I don't think there is a need for very big excitement. I think the Iraqis will understand what side of their bread is buttered and what side is dangerous," he said.

The ultimatum was the latest in a series of warnings since the Persian Gulf war ended almost two years ago. It held the potential of heightened military action against Iraq before Mr. Bush leaves office, close to the second anniversary of the JTC U.S.-led ground invasion to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which began January 17, 1991.

The trigger for the latest warning was Iraq's movement of Soviet-made SA2 and SA3 missiles below the 32nd parallel, a region patrolled by allied aircraft to prevent Iraqi air attacks against Shiite Muslim villages and to contain threats against the oil-rich gulf states.

The missiles, along with radar, threaten the air patrols, allied officials say, and thus interfere with the coalition's ability to enforce U.N. resolutions.

A U.S. F-16 warplane shot down an Iraqi MiG 25 on Dec. 27 after Iraqi planes turned toward U.S. jets patrolling the zone. Iraqi planes have continued to violate the zone in recent weeks, scooting across the line and then retreating as U.S. planes move to intercept them.

The ultimatum did not specify what kind of military action the coalition contemplates, but officials said it would be "appropriate" to the Iraqi actions, which, besides the threat posed by the missiles, include violation of the no-fly zone and interference with allied air patrols.

That leaves military commanders free not just to destroy the missiles, but to launch air strikes on nearby Iraqi bases.

Though uncertain about the Iraqi president's motives, U.S. and allied officials said he appeared to be testing the coalition's resolve as President-elect Bill Clinton prepares to take office. Mr. Hussein's aim, one official said, was to "make the West look a bit silly."

If so, he miscalculated doubly, officials said, since President Bush is determined to enforce terms of U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iraq and the incident has served to alert Mr. Clinton to the need for constant vigilance.

"I think Saddam should take no comfort in the fact that Bill Clinton is heading toward the presidency," Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said in Little Rock, Ark.

Mr. Hussein "must abide by all U.N. resolutions. He must abide by the no-fly zone. And Bill Clinton supports President Bush in his efforts to enforce them, and he will continue to support them as president," Mr. Stephanopoulos said.

Though divided on many other issues, the members of the coalition that drove Iraq's army from Kuwait have been consistently united in maintaining pressure on Mr. Hussein. Saudi Arabia did not formally join in the Western allies' warning yesterday but was understood to be strongly behind the action.

In addition to breaching the southern no-fly zone, Iraq has built up military forces close to the Kurdish region in the north and recently tried to block relief deliveries to the area. The placement of bombs on relief trucks prompted U.N. officials to assign guards to relief convoys.

On and off, Iraq also has tried to keep U.N. inspectors from finding and destroying all aspects of Iraq's program to develop and deploy nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

In each of the periodic confrontations since the gulf war, Iraq eventually has backed down when faced with the threat of military action.

But the almost ritual quality of provocation and threat underscores Mr. Hussein's durability as a nuisance to the West and potential threat to his region. Outgoing CIA Director Robert J. Gates said recently that given the chance, Iraq could develop a nuclear weapon in five to seven years.

Mr. Hussein's survival has been something of a thorn in Mr. Bush's side, since it represents the unfinished nature of an otherwise impressive military exercise.

U.S. officials once predicted that Mr. Hussein he would be overthrown within weeks or months of his defeat in the gulf war. But he has outlasted three of the leaders who once were arrayed against him: Mr. Bush, Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union.

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