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U.S. and British planes attack sites in Iraq

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Britain launched airstrikes against radar stations and air defense command centers in Iraq on Friday, including targets around Baghdad, in what President Bush called a necessary response to Iraqi provocation.

Tampa's MacDill had role in strikes
The raids -- carried out by 24 attack planes and several dozen protective and support craft shortly after night fell in Baghdad -- represented an escalation of the long-running, low-level skirmishes between U.S. and British jets and Iraqi forces. Friday's strikes were the first in two years against Iraqi targets north of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq that U.S. and British planes have patrolled since 1992.

U.S. military commanders in the region requested the strikes -- which Bush approved on Thursday -- because Iraqi air defense stations had become increasingly aggressive and effective in targeting the patrols over the zone, officials said.

"We will continue to enforce the no-fly zones," Bush said Friday during an appearance with President Vicente Fox in San Cristobal, Mexico. "The no-fly zones are enforced on a daily basis. It is a part of a strategy, and until that strategy is changed, if it is changed at all, we will continue to enforce the no-fly zones."

The aircraft had as their targets five separate sites that included as many as 20 radars and command centers.

Bush and his aides described the raid as routine, saying the United States and Britain were simply responding to Iraqi provocations, as they have repeatedly in the last two years. Since Bush took office Jan. 20, U.S. and British jets have struck targets in the southern zone three other times, most recently Tuesday. They also attacked one in the smaller zone over northern Iraq.

Striking outside the declared zones, however, required commanders to seek explicit approval from Bush, forcing him to decide whether to authorize a more aggressive military action only weeks into his term. Administration and defense officials said Friday's strikes came before Bush's national security team had been able to formulate its own comprehensive policy toward Iraq.

But with the Iraqi actions intensifying, they had little choice, they said, underscoring the extent that President Saddam Hussein can still dictate the agenda of U.S. presidents a decade after Bush's father organized the coalition that drove Iraqi occupying forces out of Kuwait.

President Clinton was also confronted by aggressive Iraqi air defenses, and beginning on his second day in office, he oversaw repeated military strikes against Iraq.

In the last six weeks, Iraqi forces have fired anti-aircraft artillery at U.S. and British aircraft 51 times and, more significantly, launched more dangerous surface-to-air missiles on 14 occasions, according to the Pentagon. Although none of those attacks succeeded in hitting any of the allied jets, commanders were concerned enough to seek permission to widen their retaliation. Officials said they believed that the firings were a deliberate attempt by Hussein to test the new administration's resolve.

Officials said Friday's attack was not the beginning of a sustained assault against the Iraqis, but they left the door open to additional strikes if Iraq continued aggressive behavior.

Air Force F-15s and F-16s, joined by British Tornadoes, carried out the attack from air fields in Kuwait, while Navy F-18s attacked from the U.S. aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials said all of the aircraft had returned safely. In all, there were 24 strike jets -- 18 American and six British -- as well as support aircraft.

Iraqi television said numerous civilians had been wounded in the attacks, which began shortly after 12:30 p.m. EST. But Pentagon officials said they had no evidence of civilian casualties, asserting that the five targets were all in relatively secluded areas -- and had been chosen for that reason.

Pentagon officials said the targets included radar installations within a few miles of the heart of Baghdad, as well as radar or command centers at Taji, Suwayrah and Taqaddum. The fifth target, in the southern zone, was a command center near Numaniyah.

Though Pentagon officials declined to offer more specifics about the weapons, they said no cruise missiles had been used in the attack.

Pentagon officials said they would not be able to determine whether the bombs hit their targets at least until after sunrise in Iraq. But they said early indications were that all the weapons worked "properly," maintaining their signals with guidance systems until impact.

"All the initial looks say it looks pretty good," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

U.S. commanders requested the attack because the pilots who patrol the southern no-fly zone had reported increasing evidence that the Iraqis had become more sophisticated and accurate in detecting and targeting U.S. and British warplanes, Pentagon officials said.

The improvements in the Iraqi air defenses are not the result of new radar systems since they continue to use equipment that is 30 to 40 years old, Pentagon officials said. But the Iraqis seem to have acquired better communications equipment and software to link up their disparate radar sites and also appear to have employed more sophisticated strategies for using that equipment.

Given those improvements, U.S. officials said, it would have just been a matter of time before a U.S. or British plane was shot out of the sky.

"It reached the point where it was obvious to our forces that they had to conduct operations to safeguard those pilots and aircraft," said Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Staff, during a briefing at the Pentagon on Friday. "As a matter of fact, it's essentially a self-defense measure in conducting the operation."

U.S. military officials said the Iraqis also appeared to have improved their air defenses along a northern no-flight zone above the 36th parallel that is also patrolled by U.S. and British planes. But the officials said the Iraqis had been less provocative in those northern regions.

Friday's attack was generally well received by members of Congress. "This was a very important signal to Iraq that we won't stand for violations at the no fly-zone, putting our pilots at risk," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas. "I approve of the president's action in standing up for America."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "Today's action implementing this policy was an appropriate response to the increased threat from the Iraqi air defense system reported by our pilots."

Russia has led criticism of the strikes, saying Iraq cannot be expected to let U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country as long as U.S. and British aircraft continue to strike Iraqi targets.

"What the American militarists are doing at the start of the new administration's activity is a challenge to international security and the entire world community," said Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's international cooperation department.

China also condemned the strikes. "We are opposed to any use of arms without authority of the Security Council at any circumstances," the spokeswoman at China's U.N. mission said.

In the West Bank, hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians took to the streets Friday night in a show of support for Hussein.

- Information from the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune was used in this report.

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