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World Perspective | MIDEAST

Overshadowed by Kosovo War, Action Against Iraq Escalating


CAIRO — While NATO jets have been slamming targets in Yugoslavia for the past nine weeks, the United States' 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 jet fighters, 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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization action in Yugoslavia began.

According to an unofficial tally of actions announced by the U.S. Central and European commands, there have been about 19 strikes against Iraq in April and May, roughly equal to the total for all of 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, Mideast analysts say, by distracting the attention of the Arab world away from Iraq--and deferring any action on the basic split in the U.N. Security Council over what to do about Iraq.

"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."

And it is not only the Kosovo war that has put Iraq on the back burner. In the Mideast, the top item on the diplomatic agenda for the year is likely to be Israel's new government under Ehud Barak and 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 Gulf. He said Iraqi air defenses have been weakened and noted that the bombings may have fueled 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 antiaircraft artillery, LaMarca said.

U.S. officials deny that the coalition airstrikes are anything but defensive and say they are an appropriate response to the Iraqi actions.

Among ordinary Iraqis, the mood is bleak, said journalist Subhy Haddad, speaking from Baghdad. "It seems that there is no end," he said with a sigh.

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

The U.S. and Britain, however, insist that Hussein's regime still poses an extreme danger to Iraq's neighbors and must be contained.

In the absence of any consensus for a new approach, the Security Council last week simply extended for six months the existing oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell limited amounts of petroleum to pay for food, medicine and other basic needs under U.N. auspices.

Looking ahead, the absence of meaningful focus on Iraq probably means a prolonging of the agony of that country's 20 million people, according to Gihad Khazen, editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat.

"It's a tragedy," Khazen said. "Saddam Hussein is such a hated figure that the administration is getting away with it."

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