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Iraq Threatens to Shoot Down United Nations U-2 Aircraft

By Craig Turner and Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
UNITED NATIONS

The dispute between Iraq and the United Nations intensified Monday when Iraq blocked U.N. arms inspectors from investigating a missile site and issued a veiled threat to shoot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane on loan to the inspection program.

Officials here and in Washington stressed that they were continuing to seek a diplomatic, rather than military, solution to the standoff. However, Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the threat to the U.N. aircraft added a "very disturbing" new element to the crisis.

"This is an irresponsible escalation, which we view with grave concern," Richardson said. "This is a direct military threat to the United Nations."

A U.S. U-2 high-altitude surveillance aircraft based in Saudi Arabia is on loan to the U.N. arms control team, which uses it secretly to photograph suspected weapons sites. In a letter to chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler that was forwarded to the Security Council on Monday, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.N. Nizar Hamdoon said Iraq could not vouch for the safety of the U-2 plane on its next flight because anti-aircraft crews are on high alert against the possibility of a U.S. airstrike.

Butler said late Monday that a U-2 flight will be made this week as scheduled.

An end to the U-2 flights was one of the demands made by the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein last week in a letter to the United Nations that touched off the latest Persian Gulf confrontation. Iraq accused the United States of using the U.N. weapons commission as a cover for espionage and declared it no longer would accept U.S. participation in the inspections. It gave U.S. nationals on duty with the United Nations in Baghdad until the end of the day on Wednesday to leave the country.

The commission, set up after a U.S.-led alliance defeated Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is charged with eliminating Iraq's capacity for nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Until it completes its work, the Security Council cannot fully lift the seven-year embargo on Iraqi oil sales and other economic sanctions imposed on Iraq.

Analysts suggest many political motives for Hussein's latest challenge,which stems from a long-term effort to divide the U.S. from other members of the Security Council.