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The formal death certificate for Operations Northern and Southern Watch may not have been signed yet, but the Iraqi war has pre-empted the decade-old protective sorties, U.S. military officials said. The fighter jets that for 12 years enforced the U.N.-mandated Iraqi no-fly zones now wage combat runs against Iraq’s government.

“We are no longer doing Operations Southern and Northern Watch. We’re flying Operation Iraqi Freedom sorties,” said a military official at an airbase in the Middle East. “Both elements have been merged because we’re now flying over Iraq as a whole.”

Others, however, say a final decision on the Watch operations has yet to be made. Since Desert Storm, the United Nations has passed 17 resolutions concerning the protection of Iraq; more than a few concerned both Northern and Southern Watch operations, the official added.

A U.S. Central Command official at Gen. Tommy Franks’ forward headquarters in Qatar declined comment on either mission’s status, saying only, “There are philosophical debates on that issue taking place right now.”

Pacific-based Air Force fighter squadrons long have been a part of the no-fly operations.

Pilots and maintenance support crews from the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan and the 18th Wing at Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base are in the region as part of the Air Force’s Aerospace Expeditionary Force rotations.

Last month, the Air Force announced both units would be frozen in place beyond the normal 90-day rotation cycle as U.S. and coalition military planners prepared for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Because of operational security concerns, the official said, “we can’t discuss what missions we’re flying now.”

Merging Northern and Southern Watches, another spokesman said, was necessary for unity of command and control. Now, one coordinating command and control center is operated by CENTCOM under Franks. “Basically, the conduct of operations called for it,” said Marine Capt. Stewart Upton from the U.S. Central Command’s foreign news desk in Qatar.

Upton said the U.S. European Command formerly controlled Operation Northern Watch, CENTCOM and Southern Watch.

He declined to discuss operational matters regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom missions.

The two no-fly zones, one in the north and the other in southern Iraq, were unilaterally created by the United States, Britain and France soon after the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq was banned from using all aircraft, including helicopters, in the air-exclusion zones.

Iraq has never accepted the legitimacy of the no-fly zones and has tried for years to shoot down the pilots who enforce them. Iraqi gunners have used an extensive network of radar, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery to challenge the patrols, although it has never downed a pilot.

The northern no-fly zone was established in April 1991 after Baghdad mobilized helicopter gunships to quell a Kurdish uprising. Known as Operation Provide Comfort, it lies to the north of the 36th parallel covering an area of 19,000 square miles. France pulled out of patrolling the operation in December 1996, saying mission changes had eliminated its humanitarian aspects.

The southern zone was imposed south of the 32nd parallel in August 1992 to protect Shiite Muslims who also rebelled against Baghdad.

Known as Operation Southern Watch, it came about after the U.N. passed a resolution condemning President Saddam Hussein for the repression of Iraq’s civilian population. At first, the zone covered mainly marshlands and included Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Late in 1996, it was extended northward, closer to the Iraqi capital, to the 33rd parallel, covering the southern third of Iraq. The expansion came after Iraq intervened in fighting between Kurdish factions around the city of Irbil, a U.N.-designated safe haven.

Retired Army Col. Daniel Smith, a CNN News military analyst and senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, said northern and southern no-fly zones no longer exist. “The whole country is a no-fly zone now,” he said “We can no longer fly combat missions from Turkish airfields, which independently kills Northern Watch.”

If Saddam’s regime is routed from Iraq, Smith said, “we should not need these two artificial creations. However, if the Shiites rebel and the Kurds get restless, who knows?”

As of March 20, the day after the war in Iraq began, the Air Force had flown Operation Northern Watch sorties for 4,365 days and Southern Watch sorties for 3,857 days, said Col. Art Haubold of the Pentagon’s Air Force press desk.

Military analyst Patrick Garrett at Global Security.org, an independent Washington-based defense information clearinghouse, said Northern and Southern Watches were “enormously successful.”

“They not only accomplished the stated goals of its mandate, but it also had the added benefit of allowing U.S. and coalition forces to wage a 12-year-long air war that significantly deteriorated Iraq’s military capabilities,” he said.

Depending on the role of a military in Iraq’s future, Garrett said, American and coalition air forces likely would continue to be needed in the region.

“A continued U.S. Air Force presence in the Gulf is virtually guaranteed,” he said, “whether it means using the bases in Kuwait and Qatar or whether or not the U.S. decides to repair and upgrade some of Iraq’s premier airfields.”

Haubold declined to speculate whether the Northern and Southern Watch operations would be needed given current operations in Iraq.

“It’s a fluid situation; things are going to change,” he said. “It’s a reasonable possibility they may transform into something else.”

— Jon Anderson contributed to this report.

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