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U.S. Jet Fires at Iraqi Battery Tracking Britons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A U.S. F-16 warplane in the skies over southern Iraq fired a missile Tuesday at an antiaircraft battery after the Iraqis locked their radar on at least four British patrol planes, U.S. and British officials disclosed.

Clinton administration officials characterized the early morning encounter as an isolated incident, saying it was unclear if Iraqi military personnel were acting on instructions from Baghdad. But some U.S. officials and Iraq experts acknowledged that it could signal the start of another round of belligerence on the part of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The use of radar against the British Tornadoes, which were routinely monitoring Iraq’s southern “no-fly” zone, indicated intent to fire at the aircraft, U.S. officials said.

In responding, the F-16 pilot followed “long-established rules of engagement” that let pilots with the U.S.-led coalition monitoring Iraq take “prudent defensive actions,” Vice President Al Gore told reporters at the White House. “They had turned their radar on. And that’s a first step toward launching a missile, or it can be, and is considered threatening.”

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Defense Secretary William S. Cohen described the quick response as an act of self-defense.

In Baghdad, Hussein’s government called the incident “proof of the aggressiveness of Americans” and an “unjustifiable action” that a spokesman said marked the onset of a “new assault” against Iraq.

The United States said the incident would not deter Operation Southern Watch, the international effort to protect the predominantly Shiite Muslim population below the 33rd parallel in southern Iraq. Southern Watch was established shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when a Shiite uprising was brutally quashed by Hussein’s regime. Another “no-fly” zone exists above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq to protect Kurds there.

“I want to make it clear that we will continue to patrol the ‘no-fly’ zones to reduce the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to the region,” Gore warned. “And we will continue to respond decisively to any hostile acts that threaten the lives of our pilots.”

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Iraq said the U.S. high-speed anti-radiation missile failed to hit the radar site and landed miles away in a lake, according to a spokesman from Iraq’s Culture and Information Ministry.

U.S. officials would not comment on the outcome, but British officials said they thought that the Iraqi missile battery had been destroyed. It may be days before allied reconnaissance can confirm its status.

The incident occurred at 9:30 a.m. in Iraq near Basra, the nation’s southern port and second-largest city, close to the Kuwaiti border. The U.S. F-16 and the British Tornadoes, which were among 10 U.S. and British planes on patrol in the area, all returned safely to their bases in Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, the United States appeared to be downplaying the exchange, saying Iraq’s intent remained unclear. “We don’t know for certain, but I would urge you not to assume that it’s a deliberate provocation,” Gore said. “There are other possible explanations.”

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Cohen said the coalition had not detected any unusual military activity in Iraq. The United States had no immediate plans to deploy more troops or ships, as it did in the last showdown with Baghdad, over United Nations weapons inspectors and their access to sensitive Iraqi sites, he said.

Washington only recently began pulling out almost half of its military personnel and all of its F-117 warplanes from the Gulf region. More than 160 aircraft, 17 ships and about 20,000 U.S. troops remain in the region, the Pentagon said. The U.S. troop strength at one point numbered 37,000.

But experts on Iraq said the notion of a local commander locking on allied aircraft on his own initiative was highly unlikely. “Iraq has always maintained strict control over its air defense assets, and, since the Gulf War, control has been even tighter,” said Kenneth Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Saddam Hussein does not want anyone but himself deciding when there is going to be a confrontation with the U.S.”

The last encounter of this kind occurred in November 1996, when Iraqi mobile missiles in the south reportedly were tracking coalition aircraft, prompting two F-16s to fire anti-radar missiles. Baghdad denied the charge.

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The U.S.-led coalition has now flown more sorties over the two “no-fly” zones--well in excess of 100,000 missions--than in all of Operation Desert Storm, according to U.S. officials. So far, no allied aircraft have been lost to Iraqi aggression.

Senior U.S. officials have been predicting another serious confrontation with Baghdad, citing three key contributing factors.

Despite recent pledges of cooperation, Hussein’s regime has reached a critical juncture with U.N. arms inspectors. An agreement last month called for Baghdad to turn over the most secret and sensitive data on its weapons of mass destruction by early August. But Iraq already appears to be backing away from the deal.

Tuesday’s episode came just a week after U.N. weapons inspectors disclosed that Iraq had adapted missile warheads to deliver lethal VX nerve gas. Baghdad had long denied any VX production, then said it produced only a small amount for experimental purposes.

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Second, Iraq’s strategy to undermine the coalition and its clout has typically involved small acts of provocation that draw a U.S. military response--followed by an international political reaction sympathetic to Baghdad. With U.S. congressional elections approaching, Baghdad may be calculating that Washington may be reluctant to get snared in another crisis or military deployment, Iraq experts say.

Finally, Iraq has effectively lost control of its oil income under a recently expanded U.N. program that allocates oil revenues only for basic humanitarian needs. Without the ability to raise international sympathy over issues of human suffering, Hussein’s government may be trying to shift the focus to its loss of sovereignty in the two “no-fly” zones.

At the United Nations, Iraq’s envoy used the incident to demand an end to restrictions. “We’re sick and tired of this ‘no-fly’ zone that is denying our rights,” said Baghdad’s ambassador, Nizar Hamdoun.


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