WASHINGTON -- The two U.S. military commanders overseeing the no-fly zones in Iraq have recommended that the Bush administration sharply reduce the number of patrols conducted by American and British pilots, mainly because of the mounting danger that an allied plane could be shot down, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.
Both Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, and Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, the top U.S. military officer in Europe, have recommended "major changes in the way we do the patrols" to enforce a U.S. ban on all Iraqi flights over large swathes of northern and southern Iraq, the official said.
Administration officials said Tuesday that the United States remains committed to maintaining the no-fly zones, and neither Franks nor Ralston is recommending that Iraqi planes be allowed to resume flying. But the generals, concerned about an intensified Iraqi campaign to shoot down an American plane, are pressing the administration to change the way they are enforced.
Franks' Central Command enforces the ban on flights over southern Iraq, which was imposed by the United States with allied support in 1992 to protect the restive Shiite population in the south from a crackdown by President Saddam Hussein's military, as well as to prevent his forces from massing near the Kuwaiti and Saudi borders. Ralston is in charge of the American forces based in Turkey that patrol the northern no-fly zone, which was declared in 1991 to protect rebellious Iraqi Kurds from air attack.
Franks has recommended reducing the patrols in the south but maintaining a minimum number of allied flights to keep a close eye on Iraqi troops who could approach the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders, a second Pentagon official said.
Ralston has indicated that he would prefer a complete halt to the flights in the north, this official said. But, he added, Ralston would like to keep warplanes at the ready in Turkey and declare that the United States reserved the right to launch retaliatory strikes if Iraq flew warplanes in the zones to harass the Kurds or other minority groups.
Reducing the number of patrols would decrease the need for frequent U.S. bombing of Iraqi air defenses. This could mark an end to the undeclared war that has pitted American and British pilots against Iraqi gunners since 1998. It also could ease the concerns of American allies in Europe and the Middle East who have urged the United States to adopt a less aggressive posture.
Last year, U.S. aircraft dropped bombs or fired missiles on Iraq 98 times, according to congressional testimony by Franks and Ralston in late March. The Iraqi government estimates that U.S. airstrikes have killed 300 people, mostly civilians, since 1998.
The military recommendations come as the administration is conducting an overall review of Iraq policy that officials hope will be completed by summer.
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