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Bush Announces `No-Fly' Zone over Southern Iraq

By Douglas Jehl
and John M. Broder

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

President Bush announced Wednesday that allied warplanes will assert control of the skies over southern Iraq, a gesture designed to break Baghdad's repressive control over the Shiite Muslim-dominated region and to signal to Iraqi dissidents that the West continues to seek the fall of Saddam Hussein.

At a White House news conference, Bush said the United States and its coalition partners will begin regular surveillance flights over an area encompassing fully a third of Iraqi territory and will respond militarily if Iraqi aircraft seek to operate in the region.

Pentagon officials said that any Iraqi aircraft entering the skies south of the 32nd Parallel after 10:15 a.m. EDT Thursday would be shot down. Baghdad has been warned that the flight prohibition applies to civilian airliners as well.

"No Iraqi aircraft, either fixed wing or rotary wing, military or civilian, will be allowed to fly south of the 32nd Parallel," said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We will respond appropriately and decisively to any Iraqi failure to comply with this requirement or any other interference with our air operations."

At the same time, Bush said the United States will be watching closely to see if Iraqi ground forces persist in a continuing crackdown against Shiite civilians and anti-government rebels and would be "extraordinarily concerned" if Baghdad does not halt such repression. But officials declined to spell out what steps they would be willing to take to prevent or punish these violations.

Bush rejected a suggestion that the move could be seen as an election-year ploy by a president trailing in the polls, saying he and allied leaders were motivated only by "new evidence of harsh repression" by Hussein.

"What emerges from eyewitness accounts ... is further graphic proof of Saddam's brutality," Bush said.

The president said national security adviser Brent Scowcroft had briefed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the operation. "I don't think the other side will try to put a political spin on this," Bush said. "We're talking about something very serious here. I'm not worried about the politics of it at all."

Speaking to reporters while campaigning in Memphis, Tenn., Clinton said he supported Bush's action. But he renewed criticism that Bush had not moved faster to protect both the southern Shiites and the Kurdish population in the north.

In launching the protective mission -- dubbed "Southern Watch" -- Bush and his senior advisers stressed that it is not intended to abet a Shiite-led insurgency or to bring about the dismemberment of Iraq.

Brandtner stressed in a Pentagon briefing that the allies were establishing "a no-fly zone, not a security zone" -- meaning that the allies had no intention of offering the Shiite population blanket protection from government attacks, as they had for the Kurds last year in Operation Provide Comfort.

Instead, senior officials said, the goal remains to increase the pressures that might force Saddam Hussein from power while allowing Iraq to remain intact as a nation.

"The United States continues to support Iraq's territorial unity and bears no ill will towards its people," Bush said. "We continue to look forward to working with a new leadership in Baghdad, one that does not brutally suppress its own people and violate the most basic norms of humanity."

A senior administration official, elaborating on the president's statement, said: "One of the effects of this is to deny him the attribute of sovereignty. If that sends the signal that as long as Saddam is in charge, Iraq's sovereignty is eroding, so be it."

An Iraqi spokesman, quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency, said that the United States, Britain and France aimed to create a crisis to divide the south from the rest of Iraq and draw the whole region "into the fire of racial and sectarian conflicts."