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U.S. Allows Iraqi Pilgrim Flights

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 24, 1997 – The United States will not interfere with Iraqi helicopters carrying Muslim pilgrims through the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, DoD officials said April 22.

Iraqi officials moved several helicopters April 21 to just north of the Iraqi-Saudi Arabian border to pick up about 100 "tired and ill" pilgrims returning from Mecca, Islam's holiest city and the birthplace of Mohammed, said Ken Bacon, Pentagon spokesman.

All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage, called a "hajj," once in their lifetime. This year's pilgrimage was scarred by tragedy when fire swept through a tent city. Saudi Arabian officials estimated the death toll at about 400.

President Clinton said the United States is prepared to enforce the no-fly/no-drive zone to prevent Iraq from increasing its military power south of the 38th parallel, but in this case would not interfere with people practicing their religion.

"We support people exercising their religious liberties and living out their religious convictions everywhere in the world," Clinton told reporters April 22. But the United States does not want religion to be used or distorted to avoid international obligations, he said.

"We intend to continue to observe the no-fly zone and continue to support the embargo until he [Saddam Hussein] lives up to the conditions of the U.N. resolutions," Clinton said.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said rules have been established to account for humanitarian efforts. "Obviously when there are humanitarian issues involved, the United Nations would be most receptive," he said. "There are requests for permission for exemptions and there is to be no flaunting of the rules."

In this case, however, Iraqi officials made no request for an exemption, DoD officials said.

The United States can discriminate between relatively limited humanitarian missions such as this and military mobilizations, Bacon said. "Our preference is that there be no flights in the no-fly zone, but we're not prepared to stop what seem to be small-scale and reasonable humanitarian actions," he said. "But there's a big difference between that and any type of military mobilization."

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