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War Of Words

Iraqi air defenses are forcing the United States to re-evaluate its air patrols over north and south Iraq, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said on Thursday.

The reason that the Americans are reconsidering the patrols "is their fear of Iraqi air defense," he told reporters.

"The strong capability of our defenses has forced the Americans and their allies to think of reviewing their policies," said Aziz, who is also acting Foreign Minister.

"These people do not have good intentions and do not accept norms of international law," he added. "If you do not confront them with steadfastness and real resistance they will not alter their policy."

U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, commander of the U.S. European Command, has let it be known that he questions whether the benefit of full-time enforcement of the no-fly zones is work the risk, said officials in Washington.

Ralston and Army General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, recommended to the Bush administration reductions in the patrols, flown since the end of the Gulf War a decade ago, to enforce a ban on Iraqi military flights over areas of northern and southern Iraq to protect Kurds and Shi'ites there.

A senior allied officer in the Persian Gulf, from where U.S. and British warplanes launch their missions, said Thursday patrols were flying normally and no decision had yet been taken to reduce the flights.

"There is a new administration in the United States and the reduction was a discussion point among several issues reviewed as we reassess operations here," the officer said. "The operation is running as usual with no changes."

He added: "We are always looking at new ways to police the no-fly zones because it is a dangerous place for our pilots. But we find that it is better to go up there every day and keep the practice level high rather than run periodic checks over the area."

Iraq has often reported hitting or shooting down Western planes, but Washington and London have denied all such reports. But in recent weeks Iraqi air defense gunners have been challenging western planes more aggressively and regularly.

Britain said on Thursday it had no plans to alter their patrols despite the Americans recommendations.

A Defense Ministry spokesman in London said, "At the moment we will continue to patrol on a regular basis and respond robustly if attacked – as has happened on a number of occasions. We have no plans to reduce or increase our presence in the north or south."

"There has been a fairly sustained effort over the last two years to shoot down one of our aircraft. It hasn't been successful to date but there is no denying it is a very dangerous environment to operate in and a dangerous job, but one that need doing," the ministry spokesman said. "We believe the no-fly zones serve a valid humanitarian purpose in preventing Saddam from using force from the air to suppress people living in those areas."

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