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U.S. Downs Iran Airliner; 290 Dead : Navy Cruiser Mistakes Jet for Hostile F-14 Over Gulf : ‘Proper Defensive Action’ Amid Battle, Reagan Says

Times Staff Writers

A U.S. warship, mistaking a commercial Iranian airliner for a warplane, shot the jet down during a naval skirmish in the Persian Gulf on Sunday. Officials in Tehran said that 290 passengers and crew aboard Iran Air Flight 655 were killed.

President Reagan said officers aboard the American guided missile cruiser Vincennes, which was battling with several Iranian gunboats, believed the jetliner was an attacking Iranian F-14 fighter and fired two surface-to-air missiles at it at 10:54 a.m. gulf time. At least one of the missiles struck the A-300B2 Airbus, sending it into the waters of the Strait of Hormuz.

“This is a terrible human tragedy,” Reagan said in a statement read by his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “We deeply regret any loss of life.”

But Reagan insisted that the Navy’s downing of the jetliner was a “proper defensive action” at a time when the Vincennes and another U.S. warship were already engaged in a sea battle directly beneath the airliner’s path.

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U.S. officials said the Vincennes warned the Iran Air flight seven times that it was entering a hostile zone, but the pilot did not respond.

“When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack,” Reagan said.

The Iranian news agency IRNA said that the attack on the airliner was “among the most horrendous crimes of its kind ever committed by America.” Tehran Radio vowed, “We will not leave the crimes of America unanswered.”

Iran Air Flight 655 is a twice-weekly half-hour flight from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a route that normally takes it very close to the location of Sunday’s hostilities on the Persian Gulf. It is popular with Iranian tourists and foreign technicians who use Dubai as a shopping center for consumer goods unavailable in Iran.

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Airline sources said all but 40 of the passengers on the flight were Iranians. Of the non-Iranians, the sources said, 19 were from the Indian subcontinent and the rest were Arabs, Koreans and Japanese. No Americans were believed to be aboard the plane.

The incident was chillingly reminiscent of the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 off the Soviet coast on Sept. 1, 1983, killing all 269 aboard. The Soviets said the Korean plane had flown into Soviet airspace and did not identify itself as a civilian aircraft.

Sunday’s disaster seemed certain to provoke international cries of condemnation and renew debate in Congress on the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf war between Iran and Iraq, now nearly eight years old. The United States increased its naval presence in the region last July when it agreed to escort 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers, re-flagged to show the Stars and Stripes, through the vital waterway.

The U.S. Navy currently has 28 warships in the gulf, the adjacent Gulf of Oman and the northern Arabian Sea. The Vincennes has been on duty in the gulf since late May. U.S. commanders, operating on hair-trigger rules of engagement because of the constant threat of hostile action by Iranian gunboats, aircraft and land-based Silkworm missiles, may shoot at any target that moves in a way that appears to threaten American forces.

Details From Crowe

An exhausted and clearly shaken Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing Sunday afternoon: “A full investigation will be conducted, but it is our judgment that, based on the information currently available, the local commanders had sufficient reasons to believe their units were in jeopardy and they fired in self-defense.”

Crowe, the nation’s highest military officer, said the jetliner was “outside the prescribed commercial air corridor. More important, the aircraft headed directly for the Vincennes, on a constant bearing at high speed, approximately 450 knots (517 miles an hour).”

He said radar operators on the Aegis-class cruiser Vincennes, which carries the Navy’s most sophisticated computerized battle management system, received “electronic indications” that the approaching plane was an F-14 attack jet. Iran has 16 to 18 American-made high-performance F-14s, according to military authorities.

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Classified Data

Crowe would not discuss the details of the electronic signals that the Vincennes received, saying such data was classified. The cruiser’s apparent inability to distinguish between a wide-bodied Airbus jetliner and a sleek F-14 warplane is certain to be a subject of intense Pentagon and congressional scrutiny.

Fitzwater said the United States was sending cables explaining the incident to allied leaders, the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab states in the Persian Gulf region and the International Civil Aviation Organization. He did not say whether Washington had contacted Tehran or Moscow directly.

He said that Reagan was awakened at 4:52 a.m. EDT at his Camp David, Md., retreat and told it was believed U.S. forces had shot down an Iranian F-14 jet fighter. At 9:50 a.m. EDT, the President was told that it was believed a civilian aircraft had been shot down.

Crowe said the missile attack on the Iran Air jet came 40 minutes after 13 to 15 Iranian gunboats threatened two merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz. Two U.S. warships, the Vincennes and the frigate Albert B. Montgomery, approached, and some of the gunboats left the area, leaving several behind. The commercial vessels made no request for assistance from the U.S. ships, he said.

Helicopter Fired On

The Vincennes sent up a helicopter “to get a better picture” of the Iranian boats and the Iranians opened fire on the chopper with machine guns, Crowe said. The Vincennes and the Montgomery responded with their five-inch guns, sinking two of the Iranian boats and heavily damaging a third. No U.S. casualties were reported.

During this encounter, radar operators in the electronic command center aboard the Vincennes detected an aircraft in the vicinity of Bandar Abbas on the Iranian coast, headed toward the Vincennes at high speed.

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Radiomen on the Vincennes tried to raise the airliner three times on civilian frequencies and four times on military channels, Crowe said, “but the aircraft neither answered nor changed its course,” the four-star admiral said.

Crowe said there were “electronic indications” that the plane was an F-14, and he noted that American intelligence had detected unusual F-14 activity in the area in previous days. He also said that Iran had threatened action against American forces over the Fourth of July weekend.

New Threats Reported

Officials refused to detail the nature of the threats. Interviewed last Thursday on Cable News Network, however, Gen. George B. Crist, chief of the Central Command, which is directing the Mideast naval force, said he believed the Iranians would attempt an attack soon.

“It’s the old ‘Rambo’ thing--first blood,” Crist said. “The Iranians have paid for their attempts to interfere with our ships, and I think they would like to get back at us.”

Pentagon officials believe the Iranian jetliner took off from the airfield at Bandar Abbas, which is both a military and civilian facility. It came at the Vincennes on a descending flight path, picking up speed slightly, Crowe said.

Four minutes after the plane was spotted on radar, “given the threatening flight profile and the decreasing range,” the jetliner was declared hostile, Crowe said. At 10:54 a.m., with the Airbus nine miles from the Vincennes, the warship fired two Standard radar-guided surface-to-air missiles at the target.

Visibility Poor in Area

At least one of the missiles hit the plane a minute later at a range of about six miles and an altitude of between 7,000 feet and 9,000 feet, but because of poor visibility, the jetliner was not visually sighted until the weapon hit, Crowe said. He said visibility in the area was two to five miles. The plane dove into the Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian island of Hengham.

U.S. warships remained outside the zone where Iranian rescue teams were searching for bodies and wreckage from the airliner.

Crowe said the United States issued a “notice to airmen,” after the Iraqi missile attack on the U.S. frigate Stark in May, that U.S. Navy ships were on heightened alert. The so-called NOTAM stressed the need for all pilots to respond to requests to identify themselves and state their intentions.

Decision Questioned

The admiral questioned the Iranian decision to allow the plane to take off 40 minutes after a naval battle had started in an area almost directly under the plane’s normal flight path.

“I don’t understand the responsibility of a country that, while it is attacking other ships, making a war zone out of a certain area of the ocean, . . . then goes ahead and flies a commercial airliner over that part of the ocean at the time that attacks and hostilities are under way,” Crowe said.

He added later that sending a passenger jet into the area was “an accident waiting to happen.”

No F-14 in Air

Although the Pentagon reported early Sunday that U.S. forces had shot down an Iranian F-14, officials later said there was in fact no F-14 ever in the air. After the jetliner was shot down, the Iranians scrambled an F-4 fighter, but it never crossed the coastline, Crowe said.

Under questioning by reporters, Crowe said the error in identifying the plane resulted from its head-on course and the short time operators had to decide what sort of aircraft was approaching.

The Aegis radar system aboard the Vincennes is capable of tracking a large number of surface and air threats, Crowe said.

“But it has not solved all of our problems, and it does not defy the laws of physics,” he added. “And one of the most difficult problems is from a radar blip, particularly from a head-on target, to identify the type of aircraft and so forth.”

Severe Time Constraints

He continued: “The people in the command center and the people operating the radar had about four minutes from the time they picked this up until it was declared hostile. That alone is a severe constraint.”

There were no U.S. land- or carrier-based airborne radar planes operating in the area and no fighter cover being flown, Crowe said. He explained that the Vincennes and the Montgomery were returning to the gulf from escorting a tanker convoy and were not judged to need the extra precautions.

A day earlier, the frigate Montgomery had fired a warning shot at one of three Iranian gunboats that attacked the Danish-flagged supertanker Karama Maersk, which was carrying Saudi Arabian crude oil in the southern gulf.

That was the first time an American warship had applied new, more liberal rules of engagement for American commanders authorized in April. The rules allow U.S. troops to come to the aid of neutral vessels that come under attack in the gulf and ask for assistance. Previously, U.S. forces could only fire in defense of ships flying the American flag.

The President, who flew to Camp David on Friday afternoon, was informed by Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, his national security adviser, in a telephone call at 4:52 a.m. EDT that an incident had occurred in the gulf and that the U.S. Navy was involved.

Powell, who was in Nashville, Tenn., had received his first word of the incident at 3:30 a.m. EDT in a call from the White House situation room. The delay in notifying Reagan occurred because the situation room was awaiting more than just the initial sketchy reports from the gulf.

Written Update Issued

At 8:11 a.m. EDT, Reagan was given a written update that brought to his attention for the first time that an Iranian civilian airliner may have been involved.

John D. Negroponte, the deputy national security adviser, then called Reagan at 9:50 a.m. EDT and informed him that the Defense Department said that it appeared that the airliner had been shot down.

At 1:05 p.m. EDT, Reagan conferred in a conference call with Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, White House Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein, Crowe, Powell and Fitzwater.

Powell had just returned to Washington from Nashville, and Bush was at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me. The others were scattered around Washington, either in their homes or offices. The call took between 15 and 20 minutes.

It was during this call that it was decided that a statement would be issued in Reagan’s name, and the wording for the statement was discussed. Bush made no independent comment. In addition, the allies were notified, as were the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council--Persian Gulf states considered friendly to U.S. interests. Carlucci notified congressional leaders.

No Early Return

In addition, the White House said Reagan had no plans to return to Washington from Camp David ahead of his planned arrival this afternoon, in time to watch the annual July 4 fireworks from a White House balcony.

At his briefing, Crowe, responding to a question about the similarity of Sunday’s incident to the case of the Soviet downing of KAL 007, said there were “two very fundamental differences.” The Korean jetliner was not shot down over a war zone with combat under way below, he said, and the Soviets did not warn the passenger plane “in any way, form or fashion.”

A senior State Department official said that U.S. diplomats were sending a note to the Iranian government through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the normal channel of communication between the two nations, which do not have diplomatic relations.

The official, who asked not to be identified, said that diplomats were not assuming that the tragedy would cause an upsurge in terrorism directed at American citizens.

“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said. “It’s certainly a possibility, but it’s not inevitable. There hasn’t been the kind of pattern of terrorist attacks that some people predicted when the Navy first went into the gulf.”

He said the incident would reverberate for weeks. “There are going to be a lot of grieving families on Iranian television,” he said. “And we don’t know who the passengers were. Presumably there were people on that plane from many countries of the region. So there will probably be heart-rending scenes at several airports. Everybody has that high on their consciousness.”

The official said that the State Department had begun to study the question of compensating the victims of Iran Air Flight 655 but that there would be no decision until the question of legitimate self-defense by U.S. forces is answered.

Crowe, attempting to explain Sunday’s disastrous miscalculation, said U.S. warships in the gulf operate under conditions that involve great “risks and uncertainties.” He noted the mistaken Iraqi missile attack on the Navy frigate Stark last May that killed 37 American sailors, the mine attack on the supertanker Bridgeton on the first convoy mission escorted by the U.S. Navy last July and the mining of the frigate Samuel B. Roberts in April.

“A decision was made early in the commitment to give our commanders sufficient latitude to protect their people and equipment when hostile intent was manifested,” Crowe said, explaining the conditions under which U.S. commanders can fire without higher authority. “They do not have to be shot at before responding.”

The commander of the Vincennes is Capt. Will C. Rogers III, born in Ft. Worth and currently living in San Diego, where the Vincennes makes its home base. Pentagon officials said they did not have a date of birth for Rogers or know whether he was related to the famous humorist of the same name.

One factor that may have prompted Rogers’ rapid and deadly response to the apparently threatening aircraft was the May 17, 1987, incident in which the frigate Stark was struck by an Exocet missile launched from an Iraqi Mirage fighter.

The Navy’s formal investigation of that incident charged that Capt. Glenn Brindel and weapons officer Lt. Basil E. Moncrief aboard the Stark failed to react decisively to warnings that an Iraqi Mirage was flying toward the warship and to alert crews to its potentially hostile intent.

Eleven minutes elapsed from the moment that the Stark was first warned that reconnaissance aircraft had sighted the Iraqi plane and the time that the Exocet hit the ship. The Iraqi plane was almost 18 miles away when it launched the missile that killed 37 aboard the ship.

The naval investigators urged courts-martial for the skipper and weapons officer for dereliction of duty. But the Navy allowed both to retire after first demoting Brindel.

Crowe, defending Rogers’ decision to shoot at the Iranian plane, said: “The No. 1 obligation of the commanding officer of a ship or of a unit are the protection of his own people. We deeply regret the loss of life here, but that commanding officer had a very heavy obligation to protect his ships, his people. We’ve made that clear throughout the Persian Gulf mission and we have acted on it accordingly, and we believe it is right and proper.”

Staff writers James Gerstenzang and Doyle McManus in Washington and Charles P. Wallace in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this story.


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