Iraq defies U.N. sanctions, flies Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ An Iraqi passenger jet carrying Muslim pilgrims flew from an air base just outside Baghdad to Saudi Arabia today in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
The Iraqi Airways jet with 104 people aboard landed without incident at King Abdulaziz International Airport in this Red Sea port. The Saudi interior minister said two fighter jets were sent out to intercept the Iraqi plane after it entered the kingdom’s airspace without clearance.
It was the first international flight dispatched by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein since the U.N. Security Council banned flights in and out of the country after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The United States monitors the Persian Gulf region with ships and aircraft and sophisticated monitoring equipment. There was no immediate comment from Washington on the Iraqi flight.
It remained unclear exactly what route the jet took from Rashid Air Base, just south of the Iraqi capital. Iraq is not supposed to send planes into the so-called ``no-fly zones″ patrolled by U.S. and allied forces over northern and southern Iraq.
U.S. Air Force officials declined comment on whether the plane had flown through one of the restricted zones, but Prince Nayeh, the Saudi interior minister, said it crossed over Jordanian airspace.
Prince Nayef said once the Saudis had determined that the plane was carrying pilgrims, it was allowed to proceed to Jiddah and the fighter jets returned to base.
Islam requires Muslims to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Saudi Arabia at least once in a lifetime, if they can afford it. About 2 million Muslims make the pilgrimage each year. This year’s begins April 16.
In Iraq, reporters were bused by the government to the air base to watch the Russian-made Ilyushin jet take off. Film of the departure was broadcast repeatedly on state-run Baghdad television.
Before leaving, the pilgrims _ 40 women and 64 men, all over the age of 50 _ were honored with a government ceremony.
Two sheep were slaughtered on the tarmac _ an Arab custom to safeguard travelers _ and their blood was smeared on the jet’s fuselage.
One of the passengers, Awatif Jaffar el-Baghdadi, said: ``We are happy with this gift from President Saddam Hussein to be the first to break the sanctions.″
The pilot, Moayed Younis, said he was proud to fly the jet.
``I consider this day as a new birthday for me,″ he said, flashing a ``V for victory″ sign as the plane took off.
The U.N. Security Council has said that the sanctions _ which also also prevent Iraq from marketing most of its oil _ will not be lifted until Iraq complies with Gulf War resolutions demanding the elimination of the country’s weapons of mass destruction.
For three years, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sent a plane from Libya to Saudi Arabia in defiance of U.N. sanctions imposed because Libya refused to surrender two Libyans wanted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
Egypt’s national carrier now is ferrying Libyan pilgrims to Saudi Arabia under a waiver from the Security Council.