Two simultaneous United Nations U-2 surveillance flights over Iraq briefly set off alarms Tuesday with the Iraqi government, which said it had not been properly informed. Both aircraft were recalled for safety reasons after a series of urgent phone calls, officials here said.
Given the high state of military readiness in the region, a major conflagration might have erupted if Iraq had fired at either of the American-piloted spy planes.
U.S. sources quoted by Associated Press in Washington said Iraq launched fighter jets to respond to the second U-2 flight, which Baghdad deemed suspicious. However, an Iraqi official here said Iraq did nothing more than watch the aircraft and telephone U.N. officials for clarification.
The wide-winged U-2 flights have been operated by American pilots since February under the auspices of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission, or UNMOVIC. Their job is to fly 12 miles above Iraqi territory, taking photographs looking for activities indicating the development or concealment of banned weaponry.
Under an agreement between UNMOVIC and the Iraqi government, the U.N. first notifies Iraq of a window of time in which the U-2 flights might take place. After Tuesday's incident, Iraqi Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin told a hastily convened news briefing that Iraq had been informed of only one flight.
He described the incident as a "technical mistake" by the United Nations and said that an UNMOVIC official in Baghdad had apologized.
"He promised that the mistake would never be repeated," Amin said.
But U.N. officials privately insisted that no apology was made and that none was required because, under the inspection agreement, there is no limit on the number of flights that can be in the air at the same time.
At a news conference in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that there was no direct confrontation but that Iraq was being uncooperative with weapons inspectors by challenging the second U-2 flight.
"Clearly, by advising UNMOVIC that they wanted those flights canceled ... I wouldn't put that on the cooperation side of the ledger for Iraq," he said.
Amin said the incident was being blown out of proportion by the United States. One of the reasons Iraq was suspicious of the flight, he said, was that it entered Iraqi airspace from Saudi Arabia rather than Kuwait, from which all previous UNMOVIC U-2 flights arrived. He said it took about 30 minutes to confirm that both flights were U.N.-related.
The flights were the seventh and eighth that have taken place since mid-February, when U-2 sorties were allowed to resume after a visit to Baghdad from top U.N. weapons inspectors seeking greater cooperation.
Amin, who heads the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate and functions as the country's top liaison officer with the weapons inspectors, said Iraq first noticed the second U-2 flight at 10 a.m. He said he called inspectors in Baghdad and asked them to identify the plane. The inspectors confirmed it was an UNMOVIC flight after calling U.N. headquarters in New York, he said.
Although all three parties -- UNMOVIC, the United States and Iraq -- agreed that the flight was operated on behalf of the inspectors, some parts of the incident "remain murky," a U.N. source said. Initially, there was an unconfirmed rumor that the United States had sent the second spy plane.
In any case, the incident reflected the high level of tension at a time when the United States and Britain have marshaled 250,000 troops for a possible invasion of Iraq. No doubt because of those tensions, Amin was at pains to underscore that Iraq had not asked for the inspection flights to stop and that it was the decision of UNMOVIC to cut short the flights for safety reasons.
UNMOVIC continued its active pace of inspections Tuesday, overseeing the destruction of three more Al-Samoud 2 missiles, nine warheads and a launcher, according to commission spokesman Hiro Ueki.
But the threat of war appears to be having an effect on the agency's staffing -- dozens of inspectors have elected to leave the country in recent days. The overall number of inspectors, which had been as high as 110 recently, has fallen to 71, Ueki said, with some inspectors leaving when their contracts expire.
The number of U.N. humanitarian workers in Baghdad has also dropped as the threat of war looms. Once numbering 900, there are now fewer than 200, with more departures expected soon, leaving only a bare-bones U.N. presence in the country.