WASHINGTON -- Two U.S. Navy jets on a reconnaissance mission over northern Iraq were attacked twice by Iraqi artillery units Tuesday, the first confirmed incidents of hostile fire since allied forces began occupying a designated security zone for Kurdish refugees, U.S. military officials disclosed yesterday.
The A-6E Intruders were unscathed, and there was no immediate retaliatory action, officials said.
The planes continued their mission and returned safely to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been positioned off the coast of Turkey to support U.S. military operations in northern Iraq.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, traveling with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in the Persian Gulf, said it was not yet clear what the U.S. response to Tuesday's incidents would be.
He told reporters that U.S. commanders in the area might take the incident up with Iraqi officials at a joint coordination center in the northern Iraqi town of Zakho.
Iraq promptly denied that its forces had fired on any allied aircraft.
An Information Ministry spokesman told reporters in Baghdad, "All this news is incorrect, untrue, baseless."
The shooting incidents raised anew a concern within the Pentagon and the Bush administration about the threat to U.S. forces in northern Iraq, posed not only by Iraqi troops eager to regain control of the territory but also by Kurdish guerrillas.
Only the day before, an Italian military convoy was hit by automatic weapons fire in a Turkish border town where Kurdish rebels were known to be active.
Officials reported that no one was injured.
There also were questions about how long allied forces could assure the security of the Kurds without provoking violent encounters with Iraqi troops.
The U.S.-led occupation in northern Iraq has been intended to aid and resettle Kurdish refugees who fled their homes after their uprising failed in March.
At a White House news conference, President Bush reiterated that the military's refugee relief effort was strictly a "humanitarian" operation.
"I don't want to see us get into a quagmire," he said.
One U.S. military official said he expected the administration to take its time deciding whether to expand the security zone for Kurdish refugees to include Dohuk, a key Iraqi provincial capital.
Earlier this week, military commanders strongly recommended securing Dohuk to lure refugees home from their harsh mountain camps on the Turkish border
Kurdish clan leaders asserted, moreover, that their people would
hTC refuse to enter Dohuk unless the city were under U.S. and allied control.
"Right now it's wait and see," said the official.
"You don't know if people are returning on their own [without expanding the security zone].
"This will be a political decision made at the highest level," he added.
Yesterday, several hundred Iraqi troops remained in Dohuk even though some armor and artillery units had begun to withdraw voluntarily earlier this week, U.S. officials said.
Maj. William Gawthrop, a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, told the Associated Press that some Iraqi observation posts had been beefed up near Dohuk and that there were signs that high-quality troops were moved in just south of the city, apparently "for the purpose of demonstrating resolve."
The Iraqis may be "flexing their muscles" in order to make sure that the expansion does not continue, he said.
Tuesday's artillery attacks were directed at the Navy jets as they were flying together on a routine night reconnaissance mission -- part of a larger, round-the-clock combat air patrol of northern Iraqi airspace for the security of refugees and allied forces.
The first attack occurred at 9 p.m. about 13 miles southwest of Dohuk, outside the 125-mile-long security zone occupied by allied troops, and consisted of two to three bursts of anti-aircraft artillery fire, one of the A-6 crews reported.
About 25 minutes later, as an A-6 crew flew 30 miles west of Dohuk, also outside the zone, it saw brief flashes followed by 45 to 60 bursts of anti-aircraft fire "several thousand feet below the aircraft," a military spokesman said. Both pilots took defensive measures and fired flares.
At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Jack Samii-Mooney said that the artillery attacks were the first incidents since U.S. forces entered northern Iraq on April 17, although at least five apparent attacks were directed at U.S. warplanes flying round-the-clock patrols over central and southern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war ended Feb. 28.
Pilots flying those reconnaissance missions "reported seeing gunfire bursts, but because of their altitude, it was impossible to determine if what they were seeing was actually anti-aircraft artillery or what the target was," he said.