U.S. says missile likely hit civilians

Iraq claims 11 killed in 2 residential areas

January 26, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An American missile may have struck a residential neighborhood and caused civilian casualties yesterday morning during an attack on Iraqi air defenses, U.S. officials acknowledged.

But Iraqi officials said two residential neighborhoods outside the southern port city of Basra were struck in the raids, killing 11 people and injuring 59. Western television reporters said they saw several houses destroyed or partially damaged.

U.S. officials acknowledged the possible accident late yesterday, after receiving protests from Iraqi officials and viewing televised pictures of damaged homes.

"We have the possibility of one missile that may be errant," Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, told reporters, saying more assessment was needed. "We deeply regret any loss of human life. We do everything humanly possible to prevent that."

Pentagon sources said the suspected errant missile was an AGM-130, which carries a 2,000-pound warhead and which was first delivered to the military in the early 1990s. The Air Force says improvements have given the ground-to-air missile "pinpoint accuracy" over an earlier version.

Launched from an F-15, the missile is guided from a television console aboard the aircraft. Made by Rockwell International, an updated version of the AGM-130 has received front and rear wings that enable the weapon to be fired from greater distances.

The attack outside Basra came as U.S. jets patrolling the southern "no-fly" zone were targeted by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns and four Iraqi MiG fighters. Pentagon officials said the aircraft attacked Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites, radar and communications facilities.

James Foley, a State Department spokesman, said: "We have seen reports, and most recently on television, from Baghdad, of civilian casualties in Basra as a result of this action. We do not have independent confirmation of these reports."

A senior State Department official said that despite the civilian casualties, the United States would be able to maintain the support it needs in the Arab world to keep up pressure on Iraq.

"Nobody's fooled about what Saddam Hussein is trying to achieve here. There will be blips and difficult moments, but we'll get through this," the official said.

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz condemned the U.S. attacks yesterday as "cowardly and treacherous aggression." Aziz also accused Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of taking part in yesterday's attack.

"Those who allow America and Britain to use their territory and space to kill Iraqis and pay for the aggression do not represent the Arab nation but they serve their masters in Washington and London," Aziz said.

Saudi Arabia denied the Iraqi charges that Western warplanes used its territory as a launch pad for the attacks.

It was the third consecutive day of U.S. attacks in the northern and southern no-fly zones. Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and four Navy F/A-18 Hornets were threatened by anti-aircraft fire and four Iraqi MiG fighters in the south.

The attacks occurred at 9: 30 a.m. local time, said Pentagon officials, adding that all U.S. jets returned safely.

The official Iraqi New Agency said that after the first strike at the al-Jumhuriya neighborhood, a second airstrike occurred nearby at 10: 10 a.m. The news agency charged the jets targeted "heavily populated areas" in that strike and said they hit the village of Abu al-Khaseeb near Basra.

Basra, a city 350 miles south of Baghdad, is part of the southern "no-fly" zone that the United States and its allies set up to protect Shiite Muslims who rebelled against the government of President Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Despite Iraqi claims that two neighborhoods were struck, the Pentagon referred to only one errant missile. The likelihood that a U.S. missile struck a residential neighborhood handed Hussein a propaganda advantage and 2placed the Pentagon in a rare defensive posture in its nearly decade-old fight with Hussein.

Zinni began his press conference by noting -- as he has in the past -- that there have been more than 70 Iraqi violations of the "no-fly" zones since last month's "Desert Fox" bombing campaign by U.S. and British forces.

He also said that Hussein moved more surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites into the areas, aggressively used radar to target aircraft and tried to lure allied jets into "SAMbushes."

Zinni said there was evidence that surface-to-air missile sites were being moved into residential and commercial neighborhoods.

"The cause of this is Saddam Hussein, his disregard for the welfare of his own people," the general said.

Iraq's other "no-fly" zone, set up in the north to protect Kurds from Hussein's forces, also was the scene of several attacks yesterday afternoon. U.S. aircraft were illuminated by Iraqi anti-aircraft radars. The American planes fored on Iraqi SAM and anti-aircraft gun systems.

After a U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle was targeted by the guns, two F-15Es dropped laser-guided bombs on the systems. In two other incidents, a U.S Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler and a U.S. Air Force F-16CJ launched missiles at two surface-to-air missile sites that posed threats to aircraft.

Meanwhile, Foley said the U.S. had not been able to confirm reports of a movement of Iraqi military into southern Iraq in the last week.

There have been a number of reports in the weeks since the U.S. attacks of stepped-up executions in the south. Saddam Hussein is also reported to have installed new commanders in the area.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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