The U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq disarm includes a little-noted provision that could be an early trigger for war. The wording could be interpreted as requiring Iraq to stop its frequent firings on American and British planes enforcing "no-fly" zones over the country's northern and southern sectors.
One sentence in Resolution 1441 says Iraq "shall not take or threaten hostile acts" against any personnel of any U.N. member state who are "taking action to uphold" any Security Council resolution. Some in the Bush administration say this is relevant to the flight-interdiction patrols because the flights were implemented to uphold an April 1991 U.N. resolution designed to keep Iraq from repressing its civilian population.
That view is not universally accepted, however, because the patrols are not explicitly authorized by the Security Council.
Iraq has never accepted the legitimacy of the no-fly zones and has tried for years to shoot down the pilots who enforce them. Iraqi gunners have used an extensive network of radars, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery guns to challenge the aerial patrols, although it has never downed a pilot.
The joint U.S.-British patrols in the southern zone, below the 33rd parallel, are known as Operation Southern Watch and began in August 1992. The planes that patrol it fly from bases in Kuwait and from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Operation Northern Watch patrols, above the 36th parallel, are flown from Incirlik, Turkey.
On Sunday, Navy fighter jets bombed two surface-to-air missile sites near the city of Tallil, about 175 miles southeast of Baghdad, even though the Iraqis had not fired at them. The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Gulf, justified the attack on grounds that Iraq committed "hostile acts" against U.S. forces by moving the targeted surface-to-air missiles into the southern no-fly zone.
Central Command said Iraq's movement of the missiles violated U.N. resolution 688, adopted in April 1991, one month after the Persian Gulf War ended in a cease-fire. Resolution 688 demanded that Iraq end repression of civilian populations, mentioning only the Kurdish people of northern Iraq, whose attempted revolt against President Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War was brutally put down by Iraqi forces. The resolution says nothing about prohibiting movement of Iraqi surface-to-air missile batteries.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has often pointed to Iraq's firing on pilots in the no-fly zones as evidence that Saddam has no regard for U.N. resolutions and no intention to comply with them.
Asked at a Pentagon news conference Friday whether Iraq would be in violation of the latest U.N. disarmament resolution if it kept firing on U.S. and British patrols, Rumsfeld would not answer directly.
He said that was a question to be considered by President Bush and by the U.N. Security Council. Other defense officials said there is no consensus within the administration how hard to press the argument that Iraqi targeting of no-fly zone patrols should be considered a breach of its Iraqi commitments to the United Nations.
"That's for the United Nations and the president of the United States to make judgments like that," Rumsfeld said. "At what point does Saddam Hussein's behavior reflect compliance and cooperation, and at what point does it reflect something other than that?"
He noted that any U.N. member state has the right to take such a matter to the Security Council and suggested the possibility that the Bush administration would do so if Iraq should continue to fire on aerial patrols.
"Clearly they are there to enforce U.N. resolutions, and that's why the coalition forces fly them," he said.