U.S. Planes Hit Iraqi Site After Missile Attack
By Barton Gellman
The skirmish, the first since 1996 in which Iraq has launched surface-to-air missiles against Western aircraft, came as part of a broad challenge by the Baghdad government against economic and military restrictions imposed by the United Nations and the American-led coalition that fought the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The challenge has intensified since President Clinton ordered four days of bombing and missile strikes against Iraqi military installations Dec. 16-19.
In recent days -- and despite damage inflicted by the U.S. and British air attacks -- Iraq has fired antiaircraft artillery near British aircraft patrolling a southern no-fly zone, declared the work of U.N. arms inspectors to be finished forever, refused permission for U.N. relief workers to fly through Iraqi airspace and threatened to halt a program permitting the sale of Iraqi oil for food and medicine.
One U.N. diplomat who follows Iraq closely said its government has "embarked on a policy I might call total resistance."
Clinton, speaking after yesterday's incident, expressed determination to enforce the air exclusion zones, but neither he nor his advisers suggested further retaliation is in the offing. The president's policymaking deputies committee met at the White House to hear a briefing on the attack from Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John A. Gordon, the deputy director of central intelligence.
"They attacked because they were attacked and they did the appropriate thing," Clinton said, expressing pride in the U.S. aircrews. He said "we will continue to enforce the no-fly zones," which he described as "an important part of our containment policy."
Iraq's purposes were opaque to U.S. policymakers. One suggested that President Saddam Hussein wanted no more than "to prove to the world that after 70 hours of bombs" in the U.S. and British attacks "he's still alive and well." Outside analysts suggested, as consultant William Arkin put it, that "they've set their strategy to accelerate the demise of the international consensus."
Iraq has long maintained that no-fly zones, in which the remnants of the Gulf War coalition forbid Iraq to use some three-fifths of its airspace, are illegal acts of aggression. Since they were imposed over broad bands of the north in 1991 and the south in 1992, Iraq has offered sporadic resistance by illuminating patrol aircraft with fire-control radar and scrambling fighter aircraft in or near the exclusion zones. The zones extend northward from the 36th parallel and southward from the 33rd, just below Baghdad's southern suburbs.
Soon after this month's bombardment, according to U.S. officials, Iraqi MiG-23 and MiG-25 fighters began probing the southern exclusion zone. They appeared to be trying to lure allied aircraft into "SAM traps" -- freshly installed surface-to-air missile sites at locations that had been undefended before.
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Saturday on Qatar's Al Jazeera television that "any violation of Iraqi airspace will be met by Iraqi fire." The same day British Tornado fighters in the southern zone reported antiaircraft fire, but a U.S. military official said "it missed by about five miles."
Yesterday's clash was more serious. According to an Iraqi military communique, four Iraqis died on the ground and seven others were injured.
"The murderers and criminals returned once again and violated our national airspace," the Iraqi statement said, adding that Iraqi air defenses "confronted them with valor and forced them to flee to their bases of evil and aggression in Turkey."
U.S. military accounts, provided on condition of anonymity, said Iraq made a meaningful attempt to bring down the allied aircraft. The attack came near Mosul, about 220 miles north of Baghdad, from a newly arrived battery of SA-3 missiles.
Aware that U.S. F-16CJ aircraft can detect and home in on fire-control radar, the Iraqi battery used a technique known as "optical launch," which Serbian forces employed to shoot down Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady in June 1995. Air defense operators on the ground fired two of their three missiles without guidance when four American F-15E strike fighters and an F-16CJ came into view. The ground crews attempted to switch on targeting radar at the last instant, to reduce the warning time to American aircrews.
"I think what he's trying to do is to shoot down one of our airplanes," said one senior U.S. officer, rejecting the theory that Iraq simply wanted to draw fire for Saddam Hussein's political gain. "You don't have any indication of launch until the last couple of seconds."
The U.S. aircraft took evasive action, according to the Pentagon, and all the planes returned safely to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. A second flight of warplanes then arrived to destroy the target-tracking radar and the command van at the missile site with three HARM radar-seeking missiles and six laser-guided 500-pound bombs.
The Iraqi News Agency asserted later that "Iraq air defenses have most probably shot down a hostile Western plane and a search for the wreckage of the plane and its pilot is going on."
"It's totally not true," said David Leavy, the White House foreign policy spokesman. "This is just more propaganda from Saddam Hussein."
A senior administration expert on Iraq said challenges to the air exclusion zones have been "a recurrent pattern after other times, in 1993 and 1996, that the U.S. took military action" against Iraq. He said yesterday's results should have "a discouraging effect on the air defense units involved," and he denied that there is any softening in the political support of U.S. allies that provide air facilities along Iraq's perimeter.
Turkey hosts the northern enforcement operations, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait host those in the south. Last week Turkey's parliament voted strongly to extend its support for another six months.
The U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which provided the rationale for Operation Desert Fox this month, has now receded from Washington's strategy on Iraq. Instead of demanding the return of the inspectors, the Clinton administration cites their absence from Iraq to justify indefinite extension of the eight-year-old U.N. stranglehold on Iraq's economy.
"We clearly don't want to play hide and seek anymore," said the senior official. "Unless there are absolute assurances" of Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM, "then sanctions will stay in perpetuity. It's very difficult to imagine what level of assurance we could get out of Iraq at this point that would be satisfactory."
Iraq's U.N. ambassador, meanwhile, scoffed at the American assertion that U.S. warplanes fired yesterday to protect themselves.
"They said they acted in their own defense as if Florida was attacked," Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon told Reuters. "Iraq has always said that there is no way that it could recognize the no-fly zones. They are illegal and they have not been established by United Nations resolutions."
Iraq's trade minister, Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, said in Baghdad, meanwhile, that Iraq has no immediate plans to eject 400 U.N. humanitarian workers who monitor an oil-for-food program. On Sunday he had said Iraq would not agree to extend the program and therefore the U.N. workers would have to go home.
The program, which is an exception to trade sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, allows the country to export as much as $4.3 billion worth of oil a year to buy food and medicine for its 22 million people. U.N. monitors attempt to prevent the import of any other goods.
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