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Coalition Air Patrols Over Iraq Increase Dramatically - 2003-03-06

U.S.-led coalition air patrols over southern Iraq have increased dramatically in recent days, setting the stage for a possible war.

A senior Pentagon official tells VOA that in recent days, U.S. and British warplanes have flown as many as 800 missions a day over southern Iraq.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that marks a substantial increase over the normal number of air patrols.

The official explains the increase is giving newly-arrived pilots an opportunity to train.

But he also acknowledges the overall aim is to unsettle Iraqi forces and mask the start of combat in the event President Bush does order an invasion.

Some of the latest air patrols have involved actual strikes. Warplanes used precision-guided munitions to target a mobile surface-to-air missile system and an anti-aircraft artillery site in southern Iraq early Thursday.

Coalition aircraft also dropped more leaflets on the south Thursday, including some urging Iraqi soldiers to desert their units and return home.

Others warned Iraq's military not to use chemical or biological weapons, not to release mines in waterways and not to release oil into the Gulf.

The latest developments in the region follow strategy talks at the White House Wednesday involving President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces aligned against Iraq.

General Franks says those forces, now numbering well over 200,000, are ready to strike immediately if ordered to do so by the President.

Meanwhile at a Pentagon Town Hall meeting, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says U.S. forces are fully capable of meeting a North Korean military threat even as they prepare for a possible war with Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld was responding to a Pentagon employee's question. "We are well-arranged and we feel good about the deterrent and the defensive capability that the United States has," he said.

The United States has moved a bomber force to the Pacific island of Guam in response to the latest tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. Defense officials say the move is not related to Sunday's incident in which North Korean warplanes intercepted an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace. Defense officials called the intercept a hostile action.