BAGHDAD, Iraq – An American U-2 surveillance plane made its first flight over Iraq on Monday in support of the current U.N. inspection mission, marking another concession by Saddam Hussein's regime to stave off a U.S.-led attack.
Meanwhile, Iraqi state television broadcast scenes of Iraqi troops in maneuvers to defend the country from a possible U.S. attack. State television also said Saddam praised last weekend's anti-war protests, singling out those in Italy, Spain and Britain whose governments support the strong U.S. position against Baghdad.
The U-2 flight took place only one week after the United Nations and Baghdad broke an impasse that had kept the reconnaissance plane grounded since the start of inspections in November. The Iraqis agreed to allow U-2 flights last week, fulfilling a major demand by U.N. inspectors seeking to determine if Iraq still harbors weapons of mass destruction.
"At 11:55 a.m., a U-2 surveillance plane entered Iraqi airspace and reconnoitered several areas of Iraq and left Iraqi airspace at 4:15 p.m.," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "The reconnaissance operation lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes."
The statement did not indicate the plane's flight path.
"A U-2 did fly today," said Ewen Buchanan, the New York-based spokesman for the chief inspector Hans Blix. "It's about time, too. We've been trying to do this for quite a while and we hope that the other reconnaissance aircraft and drones will be up and running shortly, thereby increasing our capabilities."
Iraqi officials had objected to the U-2 flights, contending they couldn't guarantee the safety of the plane if it was flying over Iraq at the same time as U.S.-British air patrols in the "no-fly zones" of northern and southern Iraq. Unless those warplanes were kept out of the sky during the U-2 flight, the reconnaissance craft might be targeted by anti-aircraft fire, they said.
The no-fly zones were declared by Washington, without U.N. authorization, to protect dissident Iraqi Shiite Muslims and Iraqi Kurds from Saddam's forces. The Iraqis consider the zones to be illegal.
It was not immediately clear whether the United Nations met conditions requested by the Iraqis in order to let the U-2 flights pass unimpeded.
Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the U.N. inspectors, had asked Blix to give Baghdad data on the flight before it entered the country's airspace, including the plane's call sign, its altitude, speed and time of arrival.
Iraq had asked for similar conditions for U-2 flights that occurred after the 1991 Gulf War, but had relented and permitted the flights to go forward.
Baghdad is under strong pressure from the United States to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors or face attack. The United States and Britain reject Iraqi claims to have abandoned all weapons of mass destruction.
On Monday, U.N. inspectors visited six missile sites -- including one involved in a rocket system the United Nations has banned.
Blix told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that U.N. missiles experts "concluded unanimously" that two versions of Iraq's Al Samoud-2 missile could exceed the 94-mile range limit set by the United Nations -- and were therefore banned.
Under U.N. resolutions adopted after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, all banned weapons must be destroyed.
Since that report, U.N. inspectors have been marking the banned Al Samoud missiles so that they can be tallied and accounted for. Hiro Ueki, a spokesman for the inspectors in Baghdad, would not say whether the inspectors intended to destroy them -- only that they were tagging the rockets as "a way of monitoring" them.
During Blix's visit to Baghdad in January, he said the Iraqis suggested that when they fitted guidance and control systems and other devices to the Al Samoud missiles, they would be weighed down and fly within the legal distance.
The New York Times, however, reported that the United States will consider Iraq's destruction of the Al Samoud, a liquid propellant "mini-Scud" ballistic missile, a litmus test of Baghdad's commitment to disarm.
Destroying the Al Samouds would rob Iraq of a potentially valuable weapon which it considers legitimate for its defense at a time when it faces tens of thousands of American troops poised for a possible invasion.
Other outstanding disarmament issues include allowing inspectors to interview Iraqi scientists without government "minders" present.
Ueki told The Associated Press that inspectors from UNMOVIC, the U.N. Monitoring and Observation Commission led by Blix, have conducted only three private interviews with Iraqi scientists since their return to Iraq in November.
"It's three out of more than 20 attempts," he said. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is inspecting Iraq's nuclear program, has conducted four private interviews, including one Monday.
Iraqi officials say the scientists are refusing to submit to private interviews because they are afraid their statements might be distorted. The inspectors say the experts would be more forthcoming about Iraq's arms programs if no government officials were present.
In its Monday report, Iraqi television showed scenes of Iraqi Mi-24 helicopters air-to-ground missiles as well as armor and infantry attacks. The report said the maneuvers took place in the Iraqi desert but did not specify where or when.
State television also broadcast a meeting between Saddam and Cabinet members. The report said Saddam told the Cabinet that although the weekend protests showed the world opposed an Iraq war, the nation must continue to prepare for conflict with America and Britain.