CHINESE aids raises risk to U.S. pilots, Rumsfeld says

Sunday, June 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ The help Iraq has received from China and other countries to strengthen its air defenses is raising the risks to U.S. and British pilots flying over northern and southern Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday.

After a series of meetings with senior Turkish government officials, Rumsfeld told reporters that Ankara continues to support the basing of allied warplanes in Turkey to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

``The discussions have been very positive,'' he said.

Rumsfeld spoke before flying to Incirlik Air Base in south-central Turkey to visit U.S. air crews who patrol the northern zone. He said their mission, known as Operation Northern Watch, is necessary to keep a lid on Iraq's military.

``There is a risk to pilots that fly in areas that are dangerous and defended,'' he said.

``The risk grows to the extent that other nations assist Iraq in strengthening its military capability, its air defense capability,'' Rumsfeld said.

He cited as an example U.S. assertions that Chinese workers were in Iraq early this year to install fiber optic links in Iraq's air defense network. The Pentagon cited those sophisticated communications links as a main reason for bombing targets in and around Baghdad in February.

Rumsfeld said President Bush plans for now to stick with the Clinton administration's policy of regularly patrolling the skies over Iraq to contain Saddam Hussein's forces.

Some, including U.S. military commanders, have questioned whether the air patrols are worth the risk of having a U.S. or British pilot captured by Iraqi forces. No planes have been lost in the 10 years since the no-fly zone enforcement began in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, but Iraqi air defenses regularly fire on allied planes with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.

Rumsfeld said the administration is still studying the matter of enforcing the no-fly zones.

``We don't have any proposals to alter that at the present time,'' Rumsfeld said in an interview with reporters traveling with him Sunday from Washington to the Turkish capital.

Turkey was the first stop for Rumsfeld on a weeklong European tour that is his most extensive overseas trip since taking office. In February he spent one day at a European security conference in Germany.

For the most part, he has been closeted in the Pentagon reviewing U.S. military commitments and practices with an eye to speeding modernization of the armed forces and making the Defense Department more efficient.

In the interview Sunday, Rumsfeld said the administration is not considering reducing the 100,000-strong American force in Europe but is reviewing the way troops there and elsewhere abroad are arrayed.

He said some have gained the mistaken impression that he might recommend to Bush that the United States pay more attention to security issues in the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of its deep involvement in Europe.

``Yes, Asia is growing and it is an important part of the world,'' Rumsfeld said. ``Any suggestion that the United States is going to, or ought to, or might, turn away from Europe is fundamentally flawed in logic.''

A chief focus for U.S. troops in Europe in recent years has been peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo. On Tuesday, Rumsfeld is scheduled to visit with the Kosovo peacekeepers and their support troops in neighboring Macedonia.

Rumsfeld, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, dismissed speculation that he favored withdrawing some forces from Europe.

``There has been no discussion about any troop adjustments, and it would be wrong to inject that into the discussion and cause tremors unnecessarily and inaccurately,'' he said.

``We are, of course, looking at how forces are arranged,'' not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world. ``What might come out of it, I don't know.''

The administration is considering whether the traditional mix and location of U.S. forces in Europe _ mostly ground troops stationed in Germany _ might be changed to better match the most likely military challenges in that region, aides to Rumsfeld said. They added that these may be only slight adjustments.