US, British air strikes on Iraq herald large-scale operation: diplomats

AMMAN, Aug 26 (AFP) - The United States and Britain are gathering steam for a large scale operation against Iraq, amid almost daily air strikes on that country, Western diplomats here said.

At the forthcoming meeting in mid-September of foreign ministers of UN Security Council member states, Britain is expected to submit anew a US-backed resolution on Iraq for which it failed to win consensus in July, they said.

"If it is adopted, the resolution will provide the United States and Britain with a new legal tool to take measures against Iraq," a Western diplomat well acquainted with Iraqi affairs told AFP.

"Pressure is rising in the United States to impose a deadline on Iraq to meet conditions set by the United Nations, after which Washington must act," the diplomat said.

The US administration is under pressure to act quickly with only six months left before the start in earnest of the US presidential election campaign, the diplomat said.

He noted that Washington had already taken steps in various directions to hurt the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Washington is striving to win UN backing to charge Saddam with war crimes to accelerate efforts to overthrow him and at the same time harassing top officials of his regime.

Iraqi number two Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri was forced to curtail a stay at a Vienna clinic last week and return home amid protests from Washington which urged Austria not to facilitate his travels.

The British proposal calls for the creation of a so-called "United Nations Commission on Inspection and Monitoring" (UNCIM) to replace the current weapons inspection committee, according to a text of the draft obained by AFP.

The United States -- along with the Netherlands, Slovenia, Argentina and Brazil -- back the proposal which would suspend a UN oil embargo on Iraq for renewable periods of 120 days if it complies with disarmament requirements for eliminating its weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq has dimissed the proposal as "monstrous", charging that it aimed at increasing restrictions on the country.

Meanwhile air strikes on Iraq are increasing in pace and depth.

On August 19 the United States admitted that its warplanes for the first time since December struck positions outside the no-fly zones set up by the allied forces in northern and southern Iraq.

Iraq has vowed to keep up its resistance to the attacks, which it says killed 25 civilians in just one week. Washington maintains that it only hits at military targets when challenged by Iraqi defences.

Meanwhile Arab countries such as Syria -- which started taking steps to improve relations with Baghdad in 1997 -- Egypt and Jordan appear to have distanced themselves from Iraq, according to Arab diplomats.

Statements attributed to the son of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad, during a visit to Kuwait in which he described Saddam as a "human beast" has sparked a controversy.

Although Syrian officials denied the statement was made, diplomats note that Damascus is unhappy with the Iraqi regime.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is said to have "washed his hands" of Iraq, and Jordan, too, is ignoring its neighbour after constantly being refused by the United States any request involving Baghdad, the diplomats said.

Eight months after the brief "Desert Fox" campaign, the Pentagon has to face up to the fact that its current policy does not seem to have achieved its desired, though unadmitted objective, to stir up dissent in the Iraqi armed forces, they said.

Copyright © 1999 AFP. All rights reserved. All information displayed in this section (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the contents of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presses.