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Tuesday, June 05, 2001, updated at 18:55(GMT+8)

Rumsfeld: US Planes Face Bigger Danger in Iraq

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday said improvements in Iraqi air defenses, aided by foreign powers, had increased the danger that US or British pilots could be shot down over north Iraq.

US pilots at Turkey's Incirlik air base, nerve center of Operation Northern Watch flights over the Kurdish enclave, backed up Rumsfeld's comments when he visited them.

Speaking in Ankara at the start of a week-long European trip, Rumsfeld said he saw no friction with Turkey over use of Incirlik as a base to enforce the no-fly zone established in the Kurdish enclave after the 1991 Gulf War.

Operation Northern Watch is a crucial part of US policy in containing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But US defense officials have said privately there is debate within the Pentagon on whether or not to reduce patrols.

High Risk of Crashes

Defense analysts say there is a high risk that eventually a British or US aircraft could crash in the area as a result of improved Iraqi air defenses or because of a technical fault.

"We've been very fortunate that we've not had a loss," Rumsfeld told journalists. "Is it conceivable that there could be one at some point? Certainly it is possible.

"The risk grows to the extent that other nations assist Iraq in strengthening its air defense capability."

He spoke of several nations helping Iraq in upgrading Iraqi communications in defense systems.

'Not a Boring Environment'

When Rumsfeld visited Incirlik in southern Turkey a US pilot at the base said the threat to flights had increased significantly in the last six months.

"It is very uncommon to fly a mission and not be fired at," he said. "It is not a boring environment."

Turkey occupies a special place in Pentagon strategic calculations, situated as it is on the edge of the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East - a Western-orientated Muslim country with ties to both Israel and the Arab world.

Washington has played a central role in winning multi-billion dollar loans for Turkey to help it out of a financial crisis.

"Turkey is acting very responsibly for security and stability in the region," Turkish Defence Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu said after meeting Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld said a dispute between Turkey and the European Union that threatens to disrupt plans for an EU defense force appeared close to resolution.

Turkey has demanded full involvement in decision-making over deployment of NATO resources. The EU was offering consultative rights to the EU candidate member.

'Turkey Gets a Pat

We...feel it is quite close to resolution which, of course, would be a good thing for NATO and a good thing for Turkey," Rumsfeld said.

He also met Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

Talking to reporters traveling with him, he praised Turkey for supporting UN sanctions against Baghdad and specifically Northern Watch.

Rumsfeld said the current administration of was debating overall US policy toward Iraq but that "we don't have any proposals to alter that at the present time."

The United States and Britain want to ease UN sanctions against Baghdad to provide more goods for Iraqi civilians while preventing Saddam from obtaining military aid from abroad and building nuclear, chemical or biological arms.

"That is not an easy task," Rumsfeld told reporters. "It is a complicated task and at its best it will be done imperfectly. Even when there were [UN] inspectors in there it was practically impossible to really monitor effectively and locate with any high degree of assurance what was going on because he [Saddam] is clever and he is determined."

Rumsfeld's trip will take him to Ukraine and five other countries. He will visit US troops in Macedonia and Kosovo and attend regional defence ministers' meetings in Greece, Belgium and Finland.

In This Section

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday said improvements in Iraqi air defenses, aided by foreign powers, had increased the danger that US or British pilots could be shot down over north Iraq.

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