- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD Iraq sent domestic passenger flights carrying more than 150 people into skies patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes yesterday, the first challenge of its kind to the no-fly zones that Iraq considers infringements on its sovereignty.
Two planes left Baghdad at 1 p.m. bound for Basra in the southern no-fly zone and Mosul in the northern zone, the official Iraqi News Agency (INA) reported. They returned safely to Baghdad about four hours later, the agency said.
Iraq, which says the flights mark the resumption of regular passenger service to the cities, used Russian-made military cargo planes for the flights an Antonov with 42 passengers to Mosul and an Ilyushin with 114 passengers to Basra.
The resumption of the flights, which Iraq announced on Oct. 30, came nearly a decade after Iraq's fleet of 15 Boeing airliners was moved to Jordan, Iran and Tunisia to escape bombing during the 1991 Gulf war. They remain abroad.
In response to the announcement, officials at the United Nations said that Iraqi domestic flights are legal under U.N. sanctions.
But a spokesman for the U.S. diplomatic mission in New York said that "for reasons of safety, it would be helpful if Iraq notified the United Nations about schedules and routes" to avoid possible incidents in the no-fly zones.
"We reiterate that the Iraqis should notify the U.N. of all civilian flight schedules and routes no less than 48 hours in advance of each flight," a State Department official said in Washington yesterday.
"We will continue to monitor closely any Iraqi aviation to determine whether it poses a threat to our forces, Iraq's neighbors or the Iraqi people," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Iraqi Transport Minister Ahmad Murtada, however, said his country would not comply with the U.S. request.
"We are free on our land and in our skies, and will not ask for authorization from anyone. That's our decision," the minister said at Baghdad's airport yesterday as the planes departed.
Passengers aboard the inaugural flights included officials and journalists who returned with the planes to Baghdad. Thousands of people had gathered to welcome the planes on arrival in Basra and Mosul, according to the INA.
"It's the first time in 10 years that I have seen a plane in the national colors over the skies of Iraq," Kamal Ali, a 28-year-old resident of the southern city of Basra, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
"The only things we see over Basra are enemy planes," another resident said.
Mr. Murtada, the transportation minister, said flights will take off daily to the two cities.
The United States says Iraqi military planes have violated the zones often with quick in-and-out forays since December 1998, when Iraq began challenging the patrols. The new challenges though in military aircraft marked the first civilian flights into the zones. Iraq has also been firing missiles and anti-aircraft artillery at the U.S. and British warplanes.
In Egypt, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf said after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that "these flights will continue … since the aim of these flights is to destroy the American-British criminal act of imposing the no-fly zones."
The United States and Britain maintain the no-fly zones are needed to protect Kurdish and Shi'ite Muslim minorities from Iraqi forces.
Their flights, launched from Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and carriers in Gulf waters, result in frequent clashes with the air defenses of Iraq.
The resumption of domestic flights follows the reopening on Aug. 17 of Saddam International Airport.
Almost 50 foreign planes have since landed in Baghdad despite the U.N. air embargo. Iraq insists the international sanctions regime does not cover international passenger flights, while the U.N. Security Council is divided on the issue.
Iraqi Airways, the country's national carrier, is charging $13 per passenger to Basra, 343 miles south of Baghdad, and $11 per passenger to Mosul, 250 miles north of the capital.

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