LONDON (Mar. 29)
The two international pariahs, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, have entered a secret military alliance that will improve their ability to defy the West and withstand Allied bombing raids, according to reports this week in London.
There is also mounting concern that Moscow, which opposes military action against both Serbia and Iraq, actively promoted the pact and will soon emerge as a full-blown antagonist of Washington’s efforts to clamp down on Milosevic and Saddam.
Earlier this year, Moscow denied that it was providing Iraq with $ 150 million worth of military equipment in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
But it is now considered likely that a Russian transport aircraft, which was intercepted in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan last week, had been bound for Baghdad — not Belgrade, as had previously been assumed.
After Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s condemnation last week of the NATO strikes in Yugoslavia, Moscow is expected to be more open about military deals with the Serbs and Iraqis, putting Russia on a collision course with Washington.
British officials said over the weekend they are aware of the reports about the Iraqi-Serbian military connection, which has the joint goal of shooting down aircraft flying bombing missions over the two countries.
“We believe they are accurate and based on good information,” said one official.
“Obviously this is a cause for concern and demonstrates the sort of company that Milosevic is now keeping.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was also said to be is aware of the reports.
“Nothing would surprise us about Saddam or Milosevic,” said a Downing Street spokesman.
It is understood that Serb technicians are already helping the Iraqis prepare air-defense traps for Allied warplanes.
The Iraqi air-defense system is currently based on obsolete SA-2 and SA- 3 Soviet missile systems, which are no match for the sophisticated air power deployed by U.S. and British jet fighters patrolling the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.
The Iraqis are also reported to be seeking Serb assistance in modernizing their aging squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-29 fighter jets.
In return for Serbia’s assistance in rebuilding Iraq’s air defenses and making its jet fighters airworthy, Saddam has reportedly agreed to provide Milosevic with oil and cash to sustain the Serbs’ battered economy and its war effort.
The Serbian military would be unable to function without a supply of Iraqi oil. And hard currency, which Saddam acquires from illicit oil sales, will prove essential for paying the salaries, and retaining the loyalty, of the Serbian military.
The London Sunday Telegraph reported that the alliance was initiated by a Serbian military delegation that visited Iraq earlier this month, shortly before NATO launched Operation Allied Force last week in Yugoslavia.
The visit was intended to explore ways in which the two countries could cooperate to their common advantage.
Along with traveling to conventional military sites, the delegation also visited an Iraqi pharmaceutical plant at Samarra, 100 miles from Baghdad, which U.N. weapons inspectors say is a chemical weapons production site.
The visit by the Serbian delegation to Iraq was confirmed by the Foreign Office in London, where officials regard the growing cooperation between the two with alarm.
“It appears they have identified a common aim — to shoot down Allied aircraft,” a senior diplomat was quoted as saying. “Saddam and Milosevic see themselves as international outcasts who must support each other if they are to survive.”