Washington The Bush administration is considering a plan to scale back enforcement of the no-fly zones over Iraq with the internal debate centering on how, and how far, to pull back, defense officials said.
Military and political concerns brought about the reassessment of U.S. strategy, these officials said.
U.S. commanders are concerned about the growing risk to U.S. and British pilots flying against an improving Iraqi air defense apparatus. They are growing frustrated over the daily cat-and-mouse game that has done little to diminish Iraqi military power. Amid these risks, allied support for the U.S. and British patrols has almost vanished, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is using the patrols to portray the United States as a bully.
"How can we do this with less?" said one senior Pentagon official, describing the question top Bush administration officials put to the experts at the Pentagon.
Military advisers led by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters responsible for the Persian Gulf region are preparing papers for presentation to top Pentagon officials on how to reduce the commitment to the no-fly zones, the official said.
Franks testified this week in a closed hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
The goal would be to continue to place military pressure on Iraq but not lock U.S. and British forces into daily patrols that often lead to missiles being fired at the aircraft and the planes returning fire. This cycle of conflict has been going on almost continuously since late 1998.
Under the proposed strategy, Saddam "doesn't get to jerk us around," the senior Pentagon official said.
The United States, along with a diminishing group of allies, has been patrolling the skies over northern and southern Iraq since shortly after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In the north, the patrols protect the Kurdish population from attack and oppression at the hands of Iraqi forces. In the south, they protect Shiite Muslim Arabs and also give the United States early warning of threatening Iraqi troop movements in the direction of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
In recent years, Pentagon officials say, Iraq has taken the initiative by engaging in "shoot and scoot" skirmishes that put U.S. pilots at risk without inflicting serious damage on Iraq's military. Also, Bush administration officials argue that the no-fly patrols impose a burden on U.S. forces not matched by significant benefit.
A reduction in the air patrols would spark criticism on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers are already concerned about what they view as an easing of economic sanctions on Iraq.