Iraqis shoot at patrolling U.S. planes Bombs dropped in retaliation

jets escape harm

April 10, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews | Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a possible new military challenge to President Clinton, Iraq aimed anti-aircraft artillery fire yesterday at four U.S. fighter jets patrolling a northern no-fly zone, prompting a quick U.S. retaliatory strike with cluster bombs, U.S. military officials reported.

The U.S. warplanes -- three F-16s and an F-4G Wild Weasel -- returned safely to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey after the incident, the officials said.

Two of the F-16s dropped a total of four cluster bombs on the apparent source of the anti-aircraft fire, but it was not clear whether they hit their target, the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, said.

Iraq, which denied having fired on the planes and called the U.S. raid a surprise, said the one soldier was slightly wounded in the bombing.

A senior Clinton administration official said it was unclear whether the attack was an isolated, unauthorized incident or part of a calculated challenge. "I don't think we know what [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's] motives are," the official said.

The attack, ending a 2 1/2 -month quiet period, followed a recent shift in U.S. policy to "depersonalize" the conflict. The Clinton administration dropped President Bush's insistence that sanctions against Iraq not be lifted until Mr. Hussein was ousted.

Instead, the United States said its goal would be to ensure that the world maintained pressure on Iraq to comply with the United Nations resolutions against it.

The shift was widely seen as a softening by the United States, but top U.S. officials said they wanted only to signal to Iraq's ruling Baath Party that any successor would be held to the same U.N. standard.

The no-fly zone -- north of the 36th parallel -- was imposed by the U.S.-led allies of the Persian Gulf war in April 1991 to protect Kurdish rebels from Iraqi attacks.

"Iraq understands clearly what its obligations are in regard to the no-fly zone and will be held solely responsible for the serious consequences of failure to comply," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Mr. Hussein might be reacting to the realization that sanctions won't be lifted soon, the senior official said, adding, "He was hoping to get a better deal, and he's figuring out he hasn't."

The official said that "we will take the necessary steps to defend ourselves" but he left the impression that the United States will wait for an Iraqi pattern of behavior to become clear before retaliating further.

In recent weeks, the United States and its allies in the Middle East have focused their attention on a renewed threat from Iran, which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak labeled this week a greater threat than Iraq.

Yesterday's attack marked the first hostilities in Iraq since Feb. 3, when French aircraft were attacked during an allied effort to enforce the northern no-fly zone.

The last time U.S. planes attacked Iraqi air-defense sites in response to provocations occurred during the first week of the Clinton administration -- Jan. 21 through 23 -- when there were two incidents in the north and one in a southern no-fly zone.

In yesterday's incident, the U.S. planes were on a "routine monitoring mission" in the northern no-fly zone when they drew anti-aircraft artillery fire about two miles east of the Saddam hydroelectric dam, roughly 20 miles northwest of Mosul, U.S. military officials said.

The incident occurred about 5:05 a.m. EDT (1:05 p.m. Iraqi time), they said.

"The Iraqi air-defense site was operational within the no-fly exclusion area," a Pentagon official said.

It did not appear that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles were operational at the time of the incident, although the Iraqi military continues to move missiles from place to place inside the northern zone, the official said.

"They're here, they're there," he said, noting that the missiles are occasionally set up in threatening configurations. "Do they come up? Do they turn them on? Do they take them down? Yes."

When Mr. Clinton took office, U.S. military officials said the Iraqis were continuing to deploy SA-6 surface-to-air missile batteries near Mosul and an SA-2 missile battery at the dam to attack U.S., British and French planes. Meanwhile, mobile SA-3 missiles were moving in and out of the zone, they said.

Allied aircraft are permitted to strike at Iraqi targets on the ground if Iraqi forces turn on their targeting radars or fire their anti-aircraft guns or missiles.

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