U.S. planes attack Iraqi missile site Pentagon describes strike as self-defense

January 22, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two U.S. fighter jets attacked an anti-aircraft missile site in northern Iraq yesterday, marking the first military 00 skirmish of the Clinton presidency and raising new questions of the need for more aggressive action against missile threats.

The brief daylight strike was described by U.S. military officials as an act of self-defense that did not require authorization from the new commander in chief, who had vowed before taking office Wednesday to maintain a hard-line U.S. policy against Iraq.

Mr. Clinton and other top administration officials, who were not informed of the incident until several hours after it happened, expressed strong support yesterday for the rules governing the use of military force against Iraqi threats. The rules allow pilots to defend themselves when fired on or when "illuminated" by Iraqi air-defense radars.

Top officials also reaffirmed their commitment to enforcing protective "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq, and to demanding Iraqi compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions that followed the gulf war two years ago.

"We're going to stay with our policy," Mr. Clinton said during his first full day at the White House. "It is the American policy, and that's what we're going to stay with."

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said, "The United States intends to protect our pilots in the no-fly zone. The Iraqis know perfectly well what it takes to comply with the U.N. resolutions and the establishment of the no-fly zones. I think what happened today is a reflection of the determination that the Clinton administration will have in that area."

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been concerned for some time about the continued presence of anti-aircraft missiles in the northern no-fly zone, a senior military official said. But, during a meeting yesterday with Defense Secretary Les Aspin, General Powell did not raise the issue of whether the Clinton administration should consider a military strike to remove that threat, the official said.

Nonetheless, the missiles still pose a threat to U.S, British and French pilots in the no-fly zone.

Some military officials said they think the Clinton administration must decide whether it can tolerate having operational Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles in the north or whether the Iraqi military should be ordered to put them into storage, even if Iraq makes no further provocations.

The latest hostilities in the north, which occurred at 5:09 a.m. EST, interrupted a period of calm across the region, which Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced Tuesday as a "gesture of goodwill to the new American president." The Iraqi leader pledged to halt threats to allied aircraft patrolling no-fly zones -- where Iraqi planes are prohibited from flying -- and to allow flights by U.N. weapons inspectors.

A team of U.N. inspectors yesterday made its first flight into Iraq in two weeks, landing in Baghdad to test assurances that the inspectors will be able to do their work safely and without obstruction.

U.S. military officials were unsure whether Baghdad had ordered radar "lock-ons" of the allied aircraft as an early test of Mr. Clinton's resolve to continue the Bush administration's tough stance against Iraq.

"Either someone didn't get the word, orders weren't obeyed or all bets are off," one official said.

The U.S. European Command, which oversees air combat operations in northern Iraq, reported that a U.S. Air Force F-4G Wild Weasel jet and F-16 fighter were escorting a French F-1 Mirage on a photo reconnaissance mission in the northern no-fly zone when the U.S. planes were "illuminated" by search radar from a surface-to-air missile battery.

The F-4G fired a HARM missile that homed in on the radar source, eight miles southwest of Mosul, and the F-16 dropped two cluster bombs on the same target. U.S. military officials were unable to say whether the weapons hit their mark.

Only minutes before the radar "lock-on," crew members on the planes noticed anti-aircraft artillery flashes from the ground, the command said. The planes were flying out of range and did not retaliate.

A civilian official at the Pentagon, who asked not to be identified, said the military had assumed that the rules of engagement remained unchanged with the transfer of command to Mr. Clinton on Wednesday.

"We would not anticipate any change [in policy] that would put our pilots at any more risk," the official said.

Iraq has three SA-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries poised to fire on allied planes near Mosul and an SA-2 missile battery at the Saddam Hydroelectric Dam about 25 miles north of Mosul inside the no-fly zone, senior military officials said. Mobile SA-3 missiles have been moving in and out of the no-fly zone, they added.

Mr. Aspin has refrained from public comment on recent U.S. military actions against Iraq, but he spoke out frequently in Congress last year in favor of a tougher stand against Baghdad's "cheat and retreat" tactics. His past comments suggest that he might not want to let Iraq keep its missiles in the north in exchange for its "goodwill gesture" and its renewed acceptance of U.N. inspectors.

"The temperature hasn't risen yet, but this is only his first day in office," a military official said of Mr. Aspin.

Mr. Aspin criticized the Bush administration for allowing Iraq to end several confrontations by making some concessions but stopping short of full compliance with U.N. resolutions or allied ultimatums.

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