BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - In a fresh bid to avert a U.S.-led attack, Iraq has finally allowed an American U-2 surveillance plane to fly over its territory in support of U.N. inspectors hunting for evidence of banned weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqis agreed to the overflights last week.
The agreement was followed by a decree banning weapons of mass destruction issued by Saddam Hussein on Friday just hours before chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix addressed the U.N. Security Council.
"At 11:55 a.m., a U-2 surveillance plane entered Iraqi airspace and reconnoitered several areas of Iraq and left Iraqi airspace at 4:15 p.m.,'' the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday night.
"The reconnaissance operation lasted four hours and 20 minutes.''
The statement did not indicate what areas were covered by the flight and efforts to contact a U.N. spokesman in Baghdad for confirmation were unsuccessful.
Blix told the council on Friday he expected the flights to start early this week.
Agreeing to allow U-2 flights fulfills a major demand by the U.N. inspectors, who returned to Iraq in November after a four-year break.
It should help boost Baghdad's case that it is cooperating with the inspectors at a time when the United States and Britain are accusing Saddam of concealing weapons of mass destruction.
It also came at a time when Britain and the United States planned to push ahead this week with a new U.N. Security Council resolution seeking authority to forcefully disarm Iraq, according to diplomats from the two allied nations.
The two are threatening to disarm Iraq by force, if necessary.
The British and U.S. diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they expected council negotiations on the resolution to be wrapped up by the time Blix delivers his next report on Iraq on March 1.
Iraqi officials had objected to the U-2 flights, contending they couldn't guarantee the safety of the plane if it was flying over Iraq at the same time as U.S.-British air patrols in the "no-fly zones'' of northern and southern Iraq.
Unless those warplanes were kept at base during the flight, they said, the aircraft might be targeted by air-defense systems.
The no-fly zones were declared shortly after the Gulf War to protect Iraq's Shiite Muslims in the south and Kurds in the north from Iraq's army. Iraq considers the zones illegal.
It was not immediately clear whether the United Nations met conditions requested by the Iraqis in order to let the U-2 flights pass unimpeded.
Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the U.N. inspectors, had asked Blix to give Baghdad data on the flight before it entered the country's airspace, including the plane's call sign, its altitude, speed and time of arrival.
Iraq had asked for similar conditions for U-2 flights that occurred after the 1991 Gulf War, but had relented and permitted the flights to go forward.
The U-2 was used for surveillance over Iraq in the 1990s in support of a former inspections regime. Iraq has in recent weeks charged that the U-2 spied in the 1990s on its conventional defenses and that the data it had collected was passed on to the CIA.
The U-2, used by the United States for reconnaissance since 1955, has a highly unusual design, with a 103-foot (31-meter), glider-like wingspan on a 63-foot (19-meter)-long fuselage, its 1,000 square feet (90 square meters) of wing area keeping it aloft in the thin air of the stratosphere.
It can fly more than 7,000 miles (11,263 kilometers) for 12 hours, slowly circling over a reconnaissance target for hours at a time, firing away with its advanced cameras and its electro-optic, infrared and radar-imagery devices.
U.N. inspectors on Monday visited six Iraqi missile sites, including one involved in a rocket system they say is banned, as Iraq appeared to face the choice of destroying hundreds of banned missiles or risking a U.S.-led attack.
Blix told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that U.N. missile experts "concluded unanimously'' that two versions of Iraq's Al Samoud-2 missile could exceed the 150-kilometer (94-mile) range limit set by the United Nations _ and were therefore banned.
Under U.N. resolutions adopted after the Gulf War, all banned weapons must be destroyed.
Since that report, U.N. inspectors have been marking the banned Al Samoud missiles so that they can be tallied and accounted for. Hiro Ueki, a spokesman for the inspectors in Baghdad, would not say whether the inspectors intended to destroy them - only that they were tagging the rockets as "a way of monitoring'' them.
During Blix's visit to Baghdad in January, he said the Iraqis suggested that when they fitted guidance and control systems and other devices to the Al Samoud missiles, they would be weighed down and fly within the legal distance.
The New York Times, however, reported that the United States will consider Iraq's destruction of the Al Samoud, a liquid propellant "mini-Scud'' ballistic missile, a litmus test of Baghdad's commitment to disarm.
But destroying the Al Samouds would rob Iraq of a potentially valuable weapon which it considers legitimate for its defense at a time when it faces tens of thousands of American and British troops poised for a possible invasion.
Iraq declared both missile systems in its semiannual report in October and in its 12,000-page weapons declaration submitted to the United Nations in December. - AP
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