Britain defends air attacks on Iraqi sites

LONDON, Reuters

Britain said on Saturday it was ready to take more action after Friday’s air strikes on the outskirts of Baghdad if President Saddam Hussein continued to attack British aircraft imposing a no-fly zone over Iraq.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday’s raids against what Britain said were Iraqi air defense systems, carried out together with United States planes, were “a limited operation with the sole purpose of defending the pilots and aircrew who patrol the no-fly zones”.

Blair’s Defense Secretary, Geoff Hoon, called the raids a humanitarian action.

But Iraq said two civilians, including an 18-year-old woman, were killed and 20 others hurt in the attacks on the edge of the capital. Baghdad’s official press vowed to retaliate.

Such operations would not be needed “if Saddam stopped attacking us,” Blair said in a statement.

“But as long as he does, I will continue to take the steps necessary to protect our forces and to prevent Saddam from once again wreaking havoc, suffering and death.”

Blair’s action in authorizing British participation was seen as evidence of a desire to forge a good relationship with new U.S. President George W. Bush ahead of Blair’s visit to Washington next Friday.

Hoon rejected a suggestion that the raids were a face saving exercise because sanctions on Iraq were not working.

“It’s about specifically the protection of people on the ground in Iraq — a humanitarian action to make sure that Saddam Hussein cannot once again unleash his forces to perpetuate terrible damage to those people,” Hoon told BBC radio.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the raids followed acts of repression by Saddam against Shi’ite Muslims in southern Iraq.

Cook added: “We cannot ask British pilots to patrol the no-fly zones and not act when we see Saddam Hussein preparing to shoot them down. That is why we took the action yesterday.

Blair said Saddam remained a threat to stability in the Middle East and was continuing to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Foreign Office officials said Iraq had large amounts of chemicals used to make chemical and biological weapons and had used the absence of United Nations weapons inspectors to rebuild its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

The British and American warplanes that carried out the raids were operating out of a no-fly zone set up over southern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War in which coalition forces drove Iraq’s invading army out of Kuwait.

The southern zone was imposed ostensibly to protect Shi’ite Muslims who rebelled against Saddam. A northern no-fly zone was set up to offer protection to the Kurdish population. Both zones are regularly patrolled by allied aircraft.

Britain’s biggest selling daily newspaper, The Sun, praised the bombing as a blow against a “bully” and applauded new U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to order the attack.

But veteran Labor Party left-winger Tony Benn said the raids breached international law and could be described as a “terrorist” action.

“I’m against an action that is contrary to international law,” he said. “This attack on Baghdad is in one sense a terrorist act.”