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Iraq Withdraws Forces From No-Fly Zones after Air Strikes

By Paul Richter and Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has begun withdrawing air-defense batteries, artillery, troops and other materiel from his country's northern and southern ``no-fly" zones in the face of steady strikes by American and British warplanes, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Although the withdrawals may be temporary, U.S. officials pointed to the regrouping as evidence of the effectiveness of a six-week campaign in which allied warplanes have inflicted substantial damage on Iraqi air defenses without losing any aircraft or pilots.

Some U.S. officials speculate that Hussein may be changing his strategy out of fear that the seemingly one-sided fight could demoralize the armed forces that are the foundation of his strength.

"He's been demonstrating to his constituencies his weakness, not his strength," a senior Clinton administration official said.

Hussein has been challenging jets patrolling the Western-imposed no-fly zones since mid-December, after intensive

U.S.-British airstrikes on his country. Iraqi fighter planes have repeatedly flown into the proscribed zones and occasionally fired at allied warplanes. Anti-aircraft missile batteries have "locked" their radar on the U.S. and British jets, often a prelude to an attack.

In response, the allied air armada has struck about 40 surface-to-air missile batteries, knocking out roughly 20 percent of Hussein's long-range SAM installations, according to U.S. defense officials.

By that reckoning, the intermittent skirmishing has been more punishing than Operation Desert Fox, the December assault that targeted 34 air-defense batteries and struck about two-thirds of them.

President Clinton gave military commanders latitude last month to respond with broad counterattacks on Hussein's air defenses any time Iraqi planes or radar make threatening moves.

The no-fly zones were imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to shield the Kurdish minority in the north and dissident Shiites in the south from air attack.

A defense official said Hussein has been moving equipment around rapidly, following a long-established pattern intended to confuse his adversaries.

He has apparently moved some equipment into the zones, which are south of the 33rd parallel and north of the 36th parallel. But, "overall, there's a net reduction," this official said. "He's had only two choices: Move it or lose it."

It is next to impossible to assess how many casualties the Iraqis have suffered in the course of the air-defense strikes, but analysts say troops and crews often work near the equipment.

U.S. officials say Hussein's decision to regroup and reposition some of his air defenses reflects the biggest limitation on his strategy _ military morale.

"There's clearly been a lot of dismay and disaffection among his supporters in the military, who feel as if they're being asked to implement hopeless missions and fruitlessly squander military lives in the process," Pollack said.

Since Operation Desert Fox, Hussein has alienated the Arab world by calling for the ouster of key leaders. His provocations have also kept at a distance the new Turkish government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, an old-style.