San Diego Union-Tribune

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17-Feb-2001 Saturday 

Allies strike Iraq
U.S., British jets pound air-defense centers near Baghdad 


OTTO KRESIHER and FINLAY LEWIS 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

WASHINGTON -- President Bush approved his first use of lethal military force yesterday as U.S. and British aircraft mounted coordinated attacks against five air defense sites around Baghdad.

Defense officials said the allied warplanes struck some targets within five miles of the Iraqi capital shortly after night fell in response to increased Iraqi attempts to shoot down allied planes patrolling the no-fly zone.

The strikes were the closest to Baghdad since the four-day Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, after Saddam refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Bush and other administration officials characterized yesterday's action as a routine enforcement of long-standing sanctions designed to cripple Iraq's military capabilities. Yet the attacks also brought the president directly into the conflict against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that began under Bush's father 10 years ago.

Bush said at a news conference in Mexico at the ranch of President Vicente Fox: "We will continue to enforce the no-fly zone until the world is told otherwise."

Administration and defense officials said yesterday's strikes came before Bush's national security team had been able to formulate its own comprehensive policy toward Iraq.

The no-fly zones have never been popular with U.S. allies, other than Britain. And there is lessening support within the United Nations, and especially among Iraq's neighbors, for maintaining tough economic sanctions.

U.S. and British planes monitor no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq to keep Saddam from attacking dissident Kurdish and Shiite Muslim populations. Most Iraqis are Sunni Muslims.

The zones exclude Iraqi military aircraft and were established in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Since early 1999, the zones have been the scene of constant engagements between Iraqi ground defenses and British and U.S. warplanes patrolling the areas.

Warplanes would encounter Iraqi anti-aircraft fire or be locked onto by radar and would respond by bombing radar and other sites.

At least 20 individual targets were hit at the five air defense facilities yesterday. Those included one radar site north of Baghdad and two radar complexes and two command-and-control centers.

Iraq's state-run media reported that allied strikes outside Baghdad killed a woman and wounded 11 people. 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.

Twenty-four allied fighters made the attacks, using precision-guided weapons, said Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The strike aircraft were assisted by many other planes, including radar jammers, tankers and radar warning and control aircraft, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Graig Quigley said.

All of the allied planes returned to their aircraft carriers or land bases safely, Newbold said.

Pentagon officials said yesterday's strikes were made by U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and British Tornado fighter-bombers, flying from Kuwait, and Navy F/A-18 Hornets flying off the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf.

British officials said six of their fighters took part in the raids.

Apparently none of the planes directly involved in the strikes flew from bases in Saudi Arabia, which has not supported the frequent American and British responses to Iraqi air defense attacks on allied aircraft patrolling Iraq since the end of the Persian Gulf War.

Newbold said the attacks were ordered because Iraqi air defenses "have increased both their frequency and sophistication of their operations."

The threat had grown to the point where "it was obvious to our forces that they had to conduct operations to safeguard those pilots and aircraft," Newbold said.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said of the attack on CNN: "It's more than about time. I'm glad that the Bush administration has made it clear in this one act that they're not going to tolerate all the nonsense that the previous administration took from Saddam."

Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Bush that the administration was continuing the Clinton administration's policy of striking at Iraqi air defenses. "There isn't any change in policy," she said.

Bush indicated that the decision to launch the attack originated with allied military commanders.

He added, "I want to assure those who don't understand U.S. policy that this is a routine mission. Some of the missions require the commander in chief to be informed. This was such a mission."

Central Command said allied aircraft in the no-fly zone have been fired on by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns or missiles more than 60 times since Jan. 1, a sharp increase over previous activity.

Those attacks have been getting closer, although no allied aircraft have been hit, Newbold said.

Out of range

Newbold and other Pentagon officials said Iraq has been using more powerful air defense radar located north of the 33rd parallel, which marks the northern edge of the southern no-fly zone.

Those radars could not be hit by the patrolling aircraft, which have the right to defend themselves if they are targeted by Iraqi radars or anti-aircraft weapons.

Because all but one of the targets struck yesterday were north of the 33rd parallel and close to Baghdad, the commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Thomas Franks, sought approval for the strike from his superiors.

That confronted Bush with his first decision to send American military personnel into harm's way.

Newbold said that while the weapons went north of the 33rd parallel, none of the allied aircraft did.

In recent years, U.S. and British aircraft have made scores of strikes against Iraqi air defense facilities, including radars and anti-air artillery and surface-to-air missile launchers in quick response to specific attacks or threats to patrolling aircraft.

Newbold said U.S. officials believe yesterday's raid succeeded in disrupting "the ability of the Iraqi air defenses to coordinate attacks against our air crews."

He said he did not anticipate additional strikes, but added that the allies maintain the right to defend themselves.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein met with his Revolutionary Command Council and leaders of the ruling al-Baath Party. They denounced the attack, saying it showed that the United States and "the Zionist entity" -- Iraq's term for Israel -- are "partners in evil and aggression."

Bush's action received bipartisan support from members of Congress.