Bush weighs reducing Iraq air patrols

Military, political factors prompt reassessment

March 10, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is considering a plan to scale back enforcement of the no-fly zones over Iraq, with the internal debate centering on how, and how far, to pull back, knowledgeable defense officials said.

Military and political concerns brought about the reassessment of U.S. strategy, these officials said.

U.S. commanders are concerned about the growing risk to U.S. and British pilots flying against an improving Iraqi air defense apparatus. They are growing frustrated over the daily cat-and-mouse game that has done little to diminish Iraqi military power.

Amid these risks, allied support for the U.S. and British patrols has almost vanished, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is using the patrols to portray the United States as a bully.

"How can we do this with less?" said one senior Pentagon official, describing the question top Bush administration officials put to the experts at the Pentagon.

Military advisers are preparing papers for presentation to top Pentagon officials on how to reduce the commitment to the no-fly zones, the official said.

The goal would be to continue military pressure on Iraq but not lock U.S. and British forces into daily patrols that often lead to missiles being fired at the aircraft and the planes returning fire. This cycle of conflict has been going on almost continuously since late 1998.

A reduction in the air patrols would spark criticism on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers are already concerned about what they view as an easing of economic sanctions on Iraq. And Pentagon officials predict that Hussein would portray any scale-back in air patrols as a propaganda victory and posture himself as having faced down a superpower.

As a result, a reduction in overflights is being tied to a broadening of the options for launching airstrikes at suspected weapons research and production facilities in Iraq. The point would be to retake the initiative, to strike at Iraq "at a time and place of our choosing," as one defense official put it, and not be locked into forcing pilots to shoot only in self-defense.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week on the air patrols and easing of sanctions.

Powell describes the review of the air patrols as one of three major "baskets" that make up the Bush administration strategy toward Iraq. The other two are increasing support for Iraqi opposition groups and reducing the sanctions on Iraq to concentrate on preventing weapons-related materials from getting into the country.

A reduction in the enforcement of the no-fly zones would seem to run counter to President Bush's avowed desire to increase pressure on Iraq and Hussein's regime. But it would fit into a broader Bush administration priority of reducing U.S. military commitments overseas and easing the tempo of operations for U.S. field units.

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