Hussein warns he'll down United Nations' aircraft Threat may prompt harsh retaliation

January 16, 1993|By Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia | Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Defying a new ultimatum by President Bush, Iraq warned the United Nations yesterday that planes carrying weapons inspectors could be shot down, advancing the prospect of another, more punishing allied air strike at targets closer to Baghdad.

Washington had given Baghdad until 4 p.m. yesterday to grant flight clearance to U.N. aircraft engaged in weapons inspection duties. Minutes before the deadline Iraq granted clearance but announced it could not guarantee the inspectors' safety in the air, saying the "responsibility lies with the United States, Britain and France, whose warplanes are violating Iraqi airspace."

It warned further that the U.N. inspectors could be fired upon from the ground, saying that Iraqi weapons, even those in the hands of its civilians, were aimed at protecting Iraq's sovereignty.

The U.N. canceled tentative plans to send the inspectors today, but resubmitted its flight plan in hopes that Iraq would back down and grant clearance in time for inspectors to arrive tomorrow morning.

Senior administration officials, clearly intending to keep Iraq on edge, refused to say whether the United States and its allies would grant the same leeway before launching a new air strike. Although forces in the Persian Gulf were poised to strike, there were no evident preparations at the Pentagon for immediate action.

Tim Trevan, a spokesman for the U.N. special commission in charge of the weapons inspections, said the Iraqi response put Baghdad in violation of its agreement with the United Nations, which requires Iraq to ensure safety of inspectors.

This meant, he said, that Iraq had breached the cease-fire ending the Persian Gulf war.

"I think the president has made it clear that if Saddam Hussein rTC doesn't step up to the plate and deal with the situation the way he really wants, why, he, Saddam, may be in some more trouble," Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger said in an interview on PBS. "But I think also Saddam is setting the stage for making the same kinds of game plays with the Clinton administration once they're in office."

If Mr. Bush orders a new strike, senior U.S. military officials predicted that it would be harsher and more visible than Wednesday's raid, which disabled Iraq's southern air-defense system but hit only one of four targets.

And rather than a second raid to knock out the remaining targets in the south, some officials favored hitting the second tier of Iraq's air-defense capability south of Baghdad.

"If you punch someone in the arm and nothing happens, you don't hit the same spot. You go for something that will really inflict some pain, like the stomach," said a senior military official speaking anonymously.

Another official said, "Maybe not enough Iraqis saw what happened" in Wednesday's raid.

Although Wednesday's raid fell short of allied intentions, it rendered the southern air defense system useless, Pentagon officials said, and it would not be cost-effective to attack the same targets again. The three missiles that survived were dismantled and moved, they said.

Officials also wanted to hit targets outside the southern no-fly zone. This would convey the desired political message, since the issue in the conflict with Iraq now is the weapons inspectors' flights, which land in Baghdad.

The new confrontation underscored how little Iraq had been chastened by Wednesday's attack, the first military assault on Iraq since the Persian Gulf cease-fire.

In the Wednesday strike, the United States had sought to display a united front against Iraq by outgoing President Bush -- whose feud with Mr. Hussein has long taken on a personal edge -- and his successor Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton subsequently weakened the message, however, in an interview with the New York Times in which he did not rule out the possibility of normalized relations if Mr. Hussein changed his behavior. Mr. Clinton and Warren M. Christopher, his nominee for secretary of state, went out of their way Thursday to reject inferences that Mr. Clinton was prepared to be easier on Mr. Hussein.

Yesterday's deadline expired exactly a week after an earlier deadline demanding that Iraq remove missiles aimed at allied aircraft patroling the southern no-fly zone.

Iraq gave only a halfway response. It moved anti-aircraft missiles in southern Iraq to the point where the United States thought initially, and incorrectly, that they no longer posed a threat.

A later conclusion that the missiles still threatened allied air patrols over southern Iraq prompted Wednesday's U.S., British and French air attack.

The raid caused less damage than initially claimed by the Pentagon and clearly left Mr. Hussein undaunted.

The no-fly-zone showdown also was preceded by an Iraqi announcement that U.N. weapons inspectors no longer would be permitted to fly into Iraq in U.N. aircraft. Immediately after the raids, Iraq said it would allow the U.N. planes. But since then Baghdad has refused to sign off on the required flight plans.

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