U.S. shoots down Iraqi warplane in 'no-fly' zone Baghdad Radio broadcasts threat to strike back

December 28, 1992|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In the first aerial hostilities in the region sinc the Persian Gulf war, the United States shot down an Iraqi fighter plane yesterday after two Iraqi aircraft crossed 20 miles into the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq and confronted two U.S. warplanes, the Pentagon said.

Baghdad Radio immediately labeled the incident "a criminal act of aggression" and broadcast a statement threatening to respond "in the appropriate manner and at the appropriate time."

The incident, which occurred at about 10 a.m. in Iraq (3 a.m. EST) yesterday, was the first since a United Nations resolution was adopted Aug. 27 declaring all Iraqi territory below the 32nd parallel off-limits to Iraqi aircraft as part of Operation Southern Watch, which is intended to protect Shiite Muslims from Iraqi air attacks.

The confrontation came during the second of two flights of Iraqi warplanes into the prohibited zone within a 40-minute period, a Pentagon spokesman said. The first time, two U.S. F-15 jets attempted identification before the Iraqi planes turned back.

The second time, two U.S. F-16 jets were ordered to intercept two Iraqi fighters. "The hostile aircraft were issued a verbal warning," the Pentagon said. "The Iraqi aircraft turned to confront the U.S. aircraft. One Iraqi aircraft was destroyed." The other fighter escaped.

Initial indications were that the planes were Russian built MiG-23s. Pentagon officials said that the status of the pilot of the downed plane was unknown, but an Iraqi helicopter was allowed to fly a search and rescue mission to the crash site inside the no-fly zone.

CIA Director Robert M. Gates said that he did not know whether the Iraqi warplanes were off course or deliberately challenging the no-fly edict. In the past, Iraqi aircraft have strayed off-course into no-fly zones in both the south and north of the 36th parallel over the area of Kurdish population in northern Iraq.

In Houston, President Bush called the Iraqi incursion "a big mistake" and warned the Baghdad government to comply with the United Nations restrictions.

"I've heard that it might be some test of our will here near the end of my presidency," Mr. Bush told reporters during a stop on his way to south Texas for his annual quail hunting vacation. "I think those F-16s sent a message to him [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] pretty clearly.

"We are not threatening anybody. But we must enforce those resolutions. He must comply with the U.N. resolutions," insisted the president. "If he does it again, the same thing will happen."

Mr. Bush was awakened at the White House and told of the incident shortly after it occurred.

In Little Rock, Ark., President-elect Bill Clinton issued a statement supporting the administration. "This is part of a series of tests of international resolve to bring Iraq into compliance with U.N. resolutions," he said.

"Saddam Hussein is mistaken if he believes the United States or the United Nations lack that resolve. I support efforts to bring Iraq into compliance."

The Iraqi spokesman claimed yesterday that the aircraft were on routine patrols "over our national soil and within our boundaries."

But the consensus among U.S. officials was that the move was intentional and part of a broader scheme orchestrated personally by Mr. Hussein.

"It seems to me part of the pattern over the last several months of increasing Iraqi aggressiveness in challenging the United Nations both in terms of the inspections and in terms of the relief effort," Mr. Gates said on the CBS interview program, "Face the Nation."

The incident followed a month of simmering tension between the U.S.-led Persian Gulf coalition and Mr. Hussein caused by repeated Iraqi sabotage of convoys carrying U.S.-financed aid to the Kurds of northern Iraq, and threats to U.N. weapons inspectors performing assignments inside Iraq.

Most of the Iraqi challenges have occurred in the north, where up to six army divisions are deployed near the Kurdish enclave.

Since late November, when the United Nations voted against lifting sanctions against Iraq, bombs have been planted on trucks in three U.N. convoys carrying relief supplies to Kurdish dissidents in the north.

Two of the bombs exploded and the third was discovered before it went off.

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