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BOMBERS PAVE WAY FOR WAR; Jets get `aggressive' in Iraqi no-fly zones.


BRITAIN and America are using Iraq's no-fly zones to soften up the country for war.

Senior Pentagon officials say allied jets are being more "aggressive", destroying missile launchers that could threaten invading ground troops.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday denied claims that "the opening shots of the second Gulf War" had already been fired.

But he admitted "more frequent patrols and a broader range of aircraft" are being used in the zones.

As Hoon spoke, it emerged that RAF and American warplanes had hit more targets in the no-fly zones.

And the first of 14 American B52 bombers were arriving at an RAF base to prepare for war.

No-fly zones were set up in northern and southern Iraq after the Gulf War to protect Kurds and Shiite Moslems from attack by Saddam Hussein.

British and US jets patrol the zones to keep Iraqi aircraft out.

The allies have always fired on Iraqi ground batteries and radar sites that threaten their planes.

But US insiders have confirmed "an aggressive shift" in strategy, with bombers now striking at Iraqi missiles and rocket launchers built purely to hit troops on the ground.

Saddam has moved such weapons up near the Kuwaiti border, where a huge invasion force is massing.

Hoon told MPs the allied jets were only defending their army comrades in Kuwait. He said: "Our forces have always been entitled to deal with threats - whether to aircraft or forces on the ground."

Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin said the bombers were "pre-empting threats to allied ground forces in Kuwait".

And he asked Hoon: "Haven't we already seen the opening shots of the second Gulf war?"

Hoon denied that, and said there had been "no substantial change" in how the no-fly zones operated.

But Doug Henderson, one of 122 Labour MPs who rebelled over Iraq last week, said the attacks in the zones were "a slide into war".

He added: "Many will believe that is extremely provocative, at a time when there is a need to build support at the United Nations and among the people of Britain."

British and American jets hit more targets in the southern no-fly zone on Monday.

US Central Command said the planes were attacked from the ground. They responded by hitting three "communications facilities" near the city of Al Kut, and an "air defence facility" near Basra.

Iraq claimed six civilians were killed and 15 wounded in the raids.

Preparations for much bigger attacks gathered pace yesterday as B52 Stratofortress bombers arrived at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

Each aircraft can carry 20 cruise missiles and can also be used for carpet bombing. Three B52s working together can leave a 50-foot deep crater a mile across.

Fairford is one of few European airfields with a runway long enough for B52s. A few peace protesters watched the jets arrive.

Hoon said nearly 30,000 British servicemen and women were now in the Gulf region, and he expected a final UK force of around 45,000.

Reports said that some American troops will be under British command when the invasion begins.

It's claimed a British-led force will be asked to occupy Basra and nearby oil fields, with the 15th US Marine Expeditionary Unit joining the UK troops.

The last British officer to lead a large US force was Montgomery in World War II. Observers believe the decision on the Basra force is a reward for Tony Blair's loyal support of America over Iraq.

Some reports yesterday claimed a strike against Saddam could be as little as 10 days away.

But American strategists are having to look again at their battle plans after Turkey refused to let them launch an invasion from its land.

Generals had hoped to use Turkey to start a "second front" of more than 60,000 troops, forcing Saddam to divide his forces as the main invasion force marched from Kuwait.

But most Turks strongly oppose war and the parliament in Ankara decided by three votes to keep American ground troops out.

An offer of dollars 15billion in US aid could help the Turks change their minds in the coming days. But the US insists the war will be won with or without a second front.

Saddam yesterday kept up his bid to persuade United Nations inspectors that he really has got rid of his weapons of mass destruction.

His officials crushed six more illegal Al Samoud 2 missiles with bulldozers, taking the total number destroyed to 16 in three days. Saddam has up to 120 Al Samouds. All must be destroyed because their range is too long under UN rules.

Iraqi officials also promised a report within a week that will prove they destroyed stocks of anthrax and VX nerve gas after the 1991 Gulf War.

But Downing Street accused Saddam of playing games, and pointed out that he must give up all his terror weapons to satisfy the UN.

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will report to the UN on Friday on how well Iraq is co-operating.

America, Britain and Spain are then expected to table a security council resolution paving the way for war. But it is far from clear that such a motion will get enough support to pass.
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 4, 2003

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