Despite its claims, Iraq still had operational missiles in zone, sources say

January 14, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. attack against Iraq was largely a response to two failed attempts by Iraqi forces to shoot down American planes in the last three weeks and an effort to try again this week by reactivating anti-aircraft missiles in the south, senior U.S. military officials disclosed yesterday.

Despite a White House announcement over the weekend that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had heeded a 48-hour deadline and moved missile batteries in the U.N.-declared "no-fly" zone, intelligence reports yesterday indicated that "the surface-to-air systems were fully operational," one senior official said.

And in the last two days, Iraq had begun to broadcast threats to U.S. pilots on aircraft radio channels warning them in English that entering Iraqi air space would be considered a hostile act, another senior military official said.

These latest actions were "a demonstrated attempt on the part of Saddam to shoot down coalition aircraft either with his own fighters or, if that failed, with a surface-to-air missile," said one official. "If you look at the groupings [of anti-aircraft missiles] and his tactics of deployment, I find it difficult to come to any other conclusion."

At the Pentagon, where senior officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity, the military revealed that a Soviet-made Iraqi MiG-25 jet fired at a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighter with an air-to-air missile Dec. 27, but missed. About 90 minutes later, a U.S. F-16 fighter jet shot down a different MiG-25 after the Iraqi aircraft crossed the 32nd parallel into the no-fly zone set up by the allies in southern Iraq to protect Shiite Muslims.

Another MiG-25 jet tried to "intercept" an American U-2 reconnaissance plane Jan. 2, but did not fire on it, a senior military intelligence official said. That same day, SA-2antiaircraft missiles were deployed in southern Iraq, joining SA-3 missiles that had been positioned in the region on New Year's Eve, he said.

Yesterday's swiftly-executed air strike, which involved 110 aircraft from the United States and its allies as part of a continuing combat air patrol mission dubbed Operation Southern Watch, was designed only to destroy the air defense network in southern Iraq, senior U.S. military officials said.

Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command who was in charge of yesterday's air strike, and other senior officials said they executed a "discrete" mission rather than the first phase of an escalating series of attacks to compel Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions and cease-fire agreements.

"I don't know if there will be any more to come; this is the only requirement that we have received thus far," General Hoar said.

But officials at the Pentagon left open the possibility that some missile sites may be revisited if assessments of battle damage in the next few days reveal that some of the allied weapons missed their mark. Expressing cautious optimism, they said pilots appeared to have hit all their targets.

Asked if future missions were likely, a senior Pentagon official said any new deployment of anti-aircraft missiles into the region would be dealt with. "It depends on Saddam Hussein," he said.

Iraqi airfields, aircraft and other military installations and hardware were deliberately stricken from the target list because the purpose of the U.S.-led attack was to eliminate the missile threat, officials said.

"You can say that SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] are sort of an iron curtain shielding Iraq," said another official. Attacking Iraqi air defense sites "removes an Iraqi capability" to resist United Nations weapons inspections and interfere with U.S. enforcement of the no-fly zone.

Rear Adm. Phillip Coady, commander of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier battle group, told reporters aboard the ship: "Even if it [the strike] isn't one that makes an impression upon the character of the individual, in this case Saddam Hussein, it certainly will make an impression upon his ability to obstruct what we are doing here in Southern Watch."

The nighttime raid involved 80 attack planes and 30 support aircraft against four fixed sites of air defense radars and missile command and control systems at Tallil, Amara, Najaf and al-Samawah. Also attacked were an unspecified number of mobile Soviet-made SA-2 and SA-3 missile batteries around Tallil and Basra, away from populated areas, military officials said.

Many of the U.S. aircraft, which included F-117 Stealth fighters dispatched from a base in southern Saudi Arabia, were armed with laser-guided "smart" bombs and anti-radar missiles. None of the Tomahawk cruise missiles stationed on U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea were fired, General Hoar said.

Thirty five planes began roaring off the Kitty Hawk flight deck at 10:45 a.m. EST. These and other aircraft based in Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations took only 30 minutes to hit all their targets, completing their flyovers at the target sites at 1:45 p.m. EST or about 9:45 p.m. Iraq time, military officials said.

The planes encountered only "light" anti-aircraft artillery fire but were flying above 10,000 feet.

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