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  U.S. Fires Missiles at Iraqi Jets in 'No-Fly' Zone

  • More news from the Associated Press.

  • By Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A1

    In the most serious aerial incident since the Persian Gulf War, U.S. warplanes fired missiles at four Iraqi fighter jets yesterday after Iraqi aircraft electronically targeted two U.S. fighters patrolling the "no-fly" zone in the southern part of the country.

    Each of the six U.S. missiles fired missed their targets four aging Soviet-made MIG-25s and both the American and Iraqi pilots involved returned safely to their bases. The encounters lasted several minutes each, said Pentagon officials, and involved two separate incidents about 15 minutes and 65 miles apart.

    The four Soviet-made jets were among some 15 Iraqi warplanes in the air near and within the "no-fly" zone yesterday, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. Bacon and other Pentagon officials said they did not yet know why the missiles had missed their targets, which were flying at 25 or more miles away.

    The encounters were the most visible of a series of substantial military provocations by Saddam Hussein that began last month just four days after Operation Desert Fox, the heaviest aerial bombardment of Iraq since the 1991 war.

    Beginning Dec. 23, and continuing nearly every day since, several Iraqi aircraft a day, and sometimes as many as eight at a time, have punctured or skirted the U.S.-imposed "no-fly" zones in the north and south that cover roughly 60 percent of the country, a senior defense official said. The Pentagon has recorded 40 violations in all.

    The incursions have become bolder as well as more numerous. Last Wednesday an Iraqi F-1 flew close to the Iraqi border with Turkey. On Saturday, two MIG-25s flew within 20 miles of the Saudi Arabian border when no allied aircraft were nearby.

    Saddam Hussein has also nearly doubled the number of surface-to-air missile batteries within the northern and southern "no-fly" zones, according to U.S. intelligence reports. About 18 batteries are there now.

    Missile sites within the zones have fired about 20 missiles at allied aircraft, a dozen in the last week alone, the intelligence reports note. Iraqi operators have fired the missiles without turning on their tracking radar, which makes them immediately identifiable by U.S. and British aircraft.

    On Dec. 30, U.S. warplanes destroyed an Iraqi SA-6 missile site after Iraq fired six to eight missiles at allied aircraft from a base in the vicinity of Talil in southern Iraq.

    Defense experts said they believe Saddam Hussein's immediate goal is to show his military that he is still in control and able to provoke U.S. ire.

    Among the targets in Operation Desert Fox were the personnel security forces and Republican Guard units that are the most loyal to Saddam Hussein and that allow him to maintain his power and to weed out and destroy suspected rivals.

    Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel yesterday that initial, still-unconfirmed reports after the bombing indicated that 600 special Republican Guard members and up to another 800 regular Republican Guard troops were killed. Members of the special guard are Saddam Hussein's bodyguards, responsible for his transport and security. The regular guards are Iraq's most elite and loyal fighting force. Most were reportedly in their barracks when they were killed.

    Iraq experts and defense officials said Saddam Hussein's longer-term goal is to use the aerial provocations to weaken U.S. resolve to enforce the flying ban and to create international hostility toward it by provoking counterattacks in which the United States appears heavy-handed.

    Saddam Hussein on Tuesday urged Arabs for the first time to revolt against those leaders in the Arab world who had supported the air attacks. "Revolt, sons of the great Arab nation . . . revolt and unseat those stooges, collaborators, throne dwarfs and cowards," the Iraqi president said in a speech broadcast on one of the most popular satellite channels in the Arab world.

    Experts also say the Iraqi leader is waging a war of attrition against the United States, trying to force the U.S. military to expend considerable resources on small, inconclusive skirmishes such as yesterday's air taunts.

    "He is trying to be annoying," said Ken Pollack, a Persian Gulf expert at the National Defense University. "If he sends up planes twice a week, every week for six weeks" and forces the United States and Britain to increase its air patrols, "at some point other nations may start to question what the U.S. is doing."

    Administration officials, having sent dozens of warplanes and thousands of U.S. personnel back and forth to the gulf region over the last two years, said they agreed with this assessment of Iraq's tactics. "Just darting across a "no-fly" zone and saying, 'nah, nah, nah, nah, nah' is irritating but not necessarily militarily significant," said one administration official. "There's no need for the U.S. to play his game."

    "I don't think the event today was insignificant," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said sharply to Shelton, when he made the same point at the hearing yesterday. "I think it's unconscionable if you subject our pilots and crews to this kind of threat without taking it out."

    When McCain asked rhetorically whether the United States shouldn't try to destroy the airfields used by Iraqi aircraft, Shelton replied: "We have those kinds of plans on the shelf" should President Clinton decide to take such action.

    Both within the Pentagon and elsewhere, there is concern that the Clinton administration is once against grappling with how to deal with its most chronic foreign irritant.

    "There's a lot of questions here about where do we go from here," said one officer. "What's next, how long does this last?"

    The two incidents yesterday were the first time in five years that American planes have been electronically targeted.

    About 10:15 a.m. yesterday (2:15 a.m. EST) two Iraqi MIG-25s illuminated, or targeted, two U.S. Air Force jets patrolling the "no-fly" zone southeast of Baghdad near the town of An-Nukhayb. In response, the U.S. planes, based at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, fired one Sparrow missile and three AIM-120 Amraam missiles. The precision-guided missiles missed their targets when Iraqi pilots "turned sharply and beat a hasty retreat out of the 'no-fly' zone," said Bacon.

    About 15 minutes later, when two other Iraqi MIG-25s dipped below the southern "no-fly" zone's 33rd parallel, two Navy F-14 Tomcats from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, aware of the incident that had just occurred, fired two Phoenix missiles, the Navy's only long-range air-to-air missiles. The planes were near the town of Al Kut southwest of Baghdad.

    Separately, and apparently unrelated to aerial engagements, an aging Iraqi MIG-23 crashed after it ran out of fuel, Pentagon officials said.

    Iraq has never accepted the "no-fly" zones, which the United States imposed and enforces with Britain. The northern zone was created in April 1991 after Iraq crushed Kurdish rebels emboldened by Iraq's defeat in the war. The southern zone was established in August 1992 and expanded in 1996. It is meant to punish Saddam Hussein and to prevent an attack on Kuwait.

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