'For months, an atmosphere of tension'

April 15, 1994|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- The deadly mistakes over northern Iraq came against a background of increasing violence in the area toward Westerners and tension between Iraq and the United States for Washington's unyielding opposition to lifting economic sanctions against Baghdad.

"There has been for months an atmosphere of tension in northern Iraq based primarily on the assaults that occur from time to time by Iraqi forces ... [such as] instances of harassment, intimidation and, we believe, terrorism," State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said yesterday.

Iraq has been seething since the United States and the United Nations went to the aid of the Kurds in northern Iraq after the

Persian Gulf War.

Through Operation Provide Comfort, the United States has virtually taken northern Iraq away from President Saddam Hussein and has allowed the Kurds to establish an almost autonomous state on Iraqi territory.

In contrast to the violence on the ground, U.S. and U.N. forces have not encountered problems in the air with the Iraqis since Jan. 17, 1993, when an American F-16 shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 flying two nautical miles north of the 36th parallel, in the U.N.-designated no-fly zone across the northern part of Iraq.

In April 1993, U.N. aircraft bombed an Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft anti-missile site in the northern no-fly zone in response to threats against patrolling planes.

Mr. McCurry said he could not say whether U.S. pilots have been in a heightened state of alert as a result of the recent attacks on U.N. personnel and other foreigners.

Because of the latest incidents of violence, he said, there has been "a very clear need for continued vigilance," and it is "why those [U.S.] planes have been running patrols constantly."

Earlier this month, the United Nations expressed concern over an increase in attacks on U.N. personnel and other foreigners in northern Iraq. Mr. McCurry blamed the violence on the Iraqi regime of Mr, Hussein.

According to reports compiled by the United Nations and the State Department, on April 3, Lissy Schmidt, a German national reporter for Agence France Presse, and her driver-bodyguard were killed when they were shot at point-blank range by unidentified assailants. Two days later, two U.N. guards were wounded by gunfire. And in March, Mr. McCurry said, two Czech nationals and two Austrians were wounded by gunfire and two Swedish journalists were injured by a car bomb.

It is unlikely that yesterday's events will speed the breakup of the coalition because the countries involved recognize the events as an accident and the casualties were relatively limited

Mr. McCurry said April 5 that the United Nations had received "credible" but unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi regime had offered a bounty of $10,000 to anyone who murders a U.N. official or relief worker aiding the Kurds.

An angry Iraq has denied its involvement in the violence. The Iraqis also charged that areas controlled by the Kurds, who have been waging a long and violent independence campaign against Iraq, are filled with thieves and gangsters.

The attacks on foreign nationals came after reports that Mr. Hussein had moved elements of his Republican Guard to the 36th parallel, the southern border of the area protected by the United States and the United Nations. And the violence also coincided with the refusal of the U.N. Security Council to consider lifting economic sanctions that were imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its defeat by an

international coalition, led by the U.S.

Although Iraq has complied with some of the conditions imposed by the Security Council and several council members have suggested a relaxation, the United States opposed it, and there is no end in sight to the strict sanctions.

Mr. McCurry said a week ago that the incidents of violence reflect "a frustrated and isolated Saddam Hussein who continues to face pressure from the international community in the form of sanctions."

No one expects an imminent lifting of the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. And it is unlikely that yesterday's events will speed the breakup of the coalition because the countries involved recognize the events as an accident and the casualties were relatively limited.

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