ABOARD THE USS 'KITTY HAWK' -- U.S. pilots enforcing the no-flight zone over southern Iraq have been fired on from the ground in the past few days, returning pilots said Friday.
As the number of air patrols launched from three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf grows, pilots say Iraqi ground defenses are responding with greater aggression.
"It was just coming on twilight when I noticed a very bright flare," said Cmdr. Jay Bynum, who led a sortie of F/A-18C Hornets over southern Iraq this week. "White flashes, just like fireworks, only a lot higher. I didn't know what it was at first."
The explosions were quickly identified as having been fired from a weapon, he said.
The explosions occurred too far away to be a real danger to the warplanes, and in the fading light the pilots couldn't see where the attack came from, he said. The U.S. planes did not return fire.
U.S. and British planes have been enforcing "no-fly" zones in Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect minority Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. Iraqi forces regularly fire at jets in the zones, but have failed to bring down any piloted aircraft.
The Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed senior defense official in Washington, that the coalition has nearly tripled the number of patrols recently in order to keep Iraqi defenders guessing and mask the start of combat.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have threatened war unless Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gives up weapons of mass destruction. Iraq denies having banned weapons.
Five U.S. carrier battle groups and ships from Britain and other allies have massed within striking distance of Iraq. Three carriers -- the Kitty Hawk, the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Constellation -- are in the northern gulf region and have sent patrols over Iraq in recent weeks.