Why 'No-Fly' Zone Clashes Won't Trigger an Iraq War

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The Bush Administration insists its policy is zero tolerance of Iraqi violations of the latest UN Security Council resolution. Administration officials announced Monday that Iraq had violated that resolution by firing on coalition planes patrolling the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq. But, in the same breath, they said the U.S. would not take the matter up at the UN Security Council, where any move to punish Iraqi violations would have to begin. What's going on?

The reason the Bush Administration won't take the latest firefight to the Security Council is that most of the Council doesn't share Washington's interpretation of the resolution as it applies to the "no-fly" zone. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has made clear that the international body does not view "no-fly" zone confrontations as a violation of the resolution. "Let me say that I don't think the Council will say that this is in contravention of the resolution that was recently passed," Annan told reporters Tuesday during a visit to Kosovo.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The White House called Monday's attacks on U.S. planes by Iraqi air defenses — which were then bombed — a violation of Clause 8 of the resolution, which states that "Iraq shall not take or threaten hostile acts directed against any representative or personnel of the United Nations or the IAEA or of any Member State taking action to uphold any Council resolution." The problem is, the flyers aren't enforcing a Council resolution. The U.S., Britain and France began in 1991 denying Iraq the right to fly in parts of its own airspace as a way of implementing UN resolutions urging protection for the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shiites in the south from the wrath of Saddam. But the "no-fly" zone was never specifically mandated by the UN Security Council, and was rejected from the outset by Iraq as a violation of its sovereignty. Iraq's objections were backed by Russia and China, and in 1996 France withdrew its participation.

Iraq has for years fired on U.S. and British planes patrolling the zone, hoping to bring one down in the belief that this would force Washington to back down. (These days, of course, it would likely have the opposite effect.) Provoking the U.S. and Britain to drop bombs in Iraq also runs the constant risk of inflicting civilian casualties, which play well for Baghdad's propaganda effort to win Arab support against the U.S. Coalition pilots fly under rules of engagement that allow them to bomb any Iraqi air-defense facilities as soon as those facilities begin targeting the warplanes with radar. Lately, their list of targets has expanded to include not only missile- and anti-aircraft artillery batteries, but also air defense command centers in what many analysts see as a preparation for an eventual invasion.

Administration officials concede that although the U.S. regards the "no-fly" zone confrontations as a breach of the latest resolution, that position would be unlikely to carry the day at the Security Council, and would therefore not serve Washington's interest in establishing a consensus on Iraq. A divided Council, after all, is the principal reason Saddam has managed to get away with thumbing his nose at the UN until now. While the U.S. may continue to cite the "no-fly" zone combat as evidence of Iraq's belligerent intentions, the violations that will count in the international conversation over how to deal with Iraq will be those concerning weapons inspections — either obstructing inspectors, or proof of continued deception or concealing of weapons programs. And for that, chances are, Washington may have to wait.