U.S. fighter fires missile at Iraqi radar station Officials say British jet was targeted, but treat incident as minor

July 01, 1998|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An American fighter jet fired a missile at an Iraqi radar site yesterday after the radar targeted for potential attack a British jet patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, military officials said.

But the United States is treating the action as an isolated incident rather than the beginning of a more aggressive posture by Iraq.

While the Pentagon said it was awaiting damage assessments, British military officials said the radar site outside Basra was destroyed by the anti-radar missile.

Iraq denied that its radar had locked on to any of the 10 planes in the area and called the missile attack "an aggressive and unjustifiable action," which one official predicted might lead to a new all-out assault on Iraq.

The official, with the Iraqi Culture and Information Ministry, said no Iraqi military units were in the area and "our defense units have not opened their radars at that time." He also contended that the missile missed its target and fell into a reservoir.

Vice President Al Gore told reporters it wasn't clear that Iraq had intended provocation. But he said the speedy response should be read as a sign that Washington is determined to enforce the ban on Iraqi aircraft in the no-fly zone, which was imposed in 1992 to prevent further attacks on Kuwait and protect Iraqi Shiite Muslims.

"The message is clear: We're going to continue to patrol and any time there is any kind of threatening act we will take decisive action to respond immediately," Gore said.

Precursor of attack

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said a British Tornado jet pilot reported that his aircraft was "illuminated" by the Iraqi radar, a precursor of a possible missile attack, early yesterday morning.

A military pilot receives both a flash on the plane's instruments and an audible warning when a radar has targeted the aircraft, said one Air Force F-16 pilot.

The F-16's pilot, who was patrolling with the Tornado and eight other British and U.S. aircraft, made what Cohen called "a split-second decision" by firing a 1,000-pound High speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), which is designed to lock onto the radar emissions.

The British planes did not have such a weapon. The allied planes were not fired upon and all returned safely to their bases, officials said.

"Around here we're figuring it's an isolated incident until we see more of the same," said a State Department official, echoing similar words used by Cohen.

Even so, American officials say they expect a more serious exchange with Iraq may not be far off.

"Another confrontation with Iraq is coming sooner or later," said a senior U.S. official. "Saddam [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] recognizes he's in a containment regime which keeps him from being able to control his destiny."

Cohen said there were no indications Iraqis are moving their air defenses around or placing forces on a higher alert.

No increases planned

He also said there were no plans to increase U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, which were reduced from 45,000 to about 20,000 at the end of May.

"We have more than adequate capability to deter any attack upon U.S. forces or allied forces," Cohen said.

Pentagon officials said the last time a U.S. pilot targeted an Iraqi radar station was in November 1996, when an F-16 fired a HARM missile when he mistakenly believed he was being targeted.

The cockpit equipment incorrectly indicated an imminent attack, defense officials said at the time.

President Clinton was told of the incident after he returned to his hotel in Shanghai, China, about eight hours after it happened. Cohen said there didn't seem to be a need to disturb him earlier.

"If it had been more serious, then obviously this information would have been communicated right away," he explained.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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