Allies step up attacks on Iraq despite air war in Yugoslavia

Alleged provocations by Baghdad prompt U.S., British strikes

May 30, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- While NATO jets have been slamming targets in Yugoslavia for the past nine weeks, America's other -- and far less visible -- air war has intensified over Iraq.

Virtually unnoticed, U.S. and British aircraft have responded to what the coalition partners describe as provocations by Baghdad. The allied fighter jets, flying from Turkey and the Persian Gulf, have been chipping away systematically at Iraqi radar posts, air defenses and other military and command facilities.

Despite the allies' use of laser-guided rockets and other precision munitions, Iraq claims that some of the strikes have gone astray, destroying private property, killing at least 20 civilians and leaving scores injured.

Although one might think that the enormous demands for air power in the Balkan conflict would diminish allied activity over Iraq, if anything, the pace of attacks has picked up slightly since NATO action in Yugoslavia began.

According to an unofficial tally of actions announced by the U.S. Central and European commands, about 19 strikes were conducted against Iraq in April and May, roughly equal to the total for January, February and March. In other words, airstrikes have been taking place about every third day.

In a way, the Yugoslav conflict has worked to the advantage of U.S.-British forces in the Persian Gulf, Middle East analysts say, by distracting the attention of the Arab world from Iraq -- leading to deferral of action in the United Nations Security Council over what to do about Iraq.

Three permanent Security Council members -- Russia, China and France -- have urged the lifting of economic sanctions after nine years, arguing that they have caused intolerable suffering to the Iraqi people without affecting the regime.

The United States and Britain insist that President Saddam Hussein's regime still poses an extreme danger to Iraq's neighbors.

Recently, the Security Council extended for six months the existing oil-for-food program.

"The daily attacks are a war of attrition against Saddam [Hussein], and [yet] at the same time, they do not arouse mass anger among Arabs," observed Nabil Abdel Fattaj, a researcher at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "It is not making headlines anymore."

It is not only the war in Kosovo that has put Iraq on the back burner. In the Middle East, the top item on the diplomatic agenda for the remainder of the year is likely to be Israel's new government under Ehud Barak and its attempts to resuscitate the peace process.

U.S. officials say the bombings have exacted a heavy toll on Hussein's regime.

"We have certainly degraded their ability to respond," said Air Force Maj. Joseph LaMarca Jr., spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. He said Iraqi air defenses have been weakened and noted that the bombings may have contributed to dissension in the Iraqi military.

Since Iraq announced in January that it would begin resisting the Western-imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, the U.S. military said there have been about 180 Iraqi threats against allied forces, including 111 violations of the no-fly zones, nine cases of illuminating allied aircraft with radar, 16 firings of surface-to-air missiles and at least 50 engagements with anti-aircraft artillery.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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