Pentagon Confirms Strike on Iraqi Neighborhood
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 1999 A U.S. missile fired at an Iraqi radar site Jan. 25 went astray and exploded in a residential neighborhood near the city of Basra in southern Iraq.
At the time, U.S. forces were responding to provocative attacks against coalition aircraft by targeting elements of Saddam Hussein's air defense system, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said here Jan. 26.
"We have analyzed yesterday's information and found that an AGM- 130 did miss its target and exploded in a residential neighborhood several kilometers away from its target," Bacon said. Other ordnance fired during the incident hit the military targets at which they were directed, he added.
Defense officials have no independent estimate of casualties or fatalities resulting from the errant strike, Bacon noted.
Coalition forces take every step possible to avoid targeting civilians or creating collateral damage, Bacon stressed. "We are not attacking the people of Iraq. We have no animus against them whatsoever. In fact, we have a lot of sympathy for the people of Iraq. But we are attacking a large air defense system being used in an attempt to defeat the policing of the no-fly zones."
Central Command officials are still investigating why the missile missed its mark. "Precision-guided munitions, while highly accurate, are not infallible," Bacon remarked.
Shortly after the Jan. 25 attack, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command and Operation Southern Watch, met with reporters at the Pentagon. He said Saddam Hussein is ultimately responsible for any civilian casualties related to coalition air strikes against Iraqi air defense sites.
The commander noted that Hussein has increased the possibility of collateral damage by placing his air defense systems, military forces and aircraft in close proximity to civilians. This use of human shields, he said, "clearly points out his disregard and lack of care about his own population."
"We deeply regret any civilian casualties, regardless of what the cause may be, but these exchanges have been initiated by Saddam Hussein," Zinni said, and "No one can guarantee that these strikes will not have errors or that we might not have errant ordnance."
In the Jan. 25 incident, Central Command officials said, two U.S. Air Force F-15Es and four F/A-18s patrolling the southern no-fly zone responded to threats from anti-aircraft artillery and four Iraqi MiG fighters. They responded by dropping precision-guided munitions and launching ground-attack missiles. All coalition aircraft returned safely to base.
Since Operation Desert Fox in mid-December, U.S. officials report, the Iraqis have tripled the number of anti-aircraft missile batteries in the south and have stepped up the pace, intensity and coordination of their air defenses in the north and south.
Iraq's air defense system consists of jet fighters, anti- aircraft gun and missile batteries, radars and early warning systems and communications, Zinni explained. In recent weeks, more than 100 Iraqi aircraft committed more than 70 no-fly violations, the Iraqis have fired missiles at coalition planes in nearly 20 incidents, plus fired anti-aircraft artillery and targeted coalition planes with radar.
"It's evident to us that this entire system has been centrally controlled and turned on to oppose our enforcement of the no-fly sanctions, both north and south," he said. "We view this threat as centralized and deliberate, and we view the entire air defense system that's being set against us as the objective in any response that we take."
Iraq's declared objective, according to Zinni, is to violate the no-fly zones and to shoot down coalition aircraft. One can only speculate about Hussein's purpose, whether it's to parade an American pilot in Baghdad or to drum up support among other Arab leaders, he said.
"We've seen packages of [Iraqi] airplanes, two and three per flight, coming down in coordinated fashion, working in cooperation with surface-to-air missile -- SAM -- batteries, trying to lure our plane into what has become known as 'SAMbushes,'" he said. U.S. pilots do not fall for the bait, and Iraqi pilots are quick to leave the zones.
Overall, Zinni remarked, these incursions may be acts of desperation on Hussein's part. "What's the cure for this?" the general asked. "A post-Saddam regime."
Central Command officials said 12 Iraqi fighters committed five no-fly violations in the south and one in the north Jan. 25. Along with the reactive strike in Basra, other incidents occurred where Iraqis in the north targeted coalition patrol aircraft and fired on them with anti-aircraft artillery. Zinni said U.S. aircraft struck back, firing on missile batteries and other air defense facilities in the north and south.
European Command officials said, coalition aircraft again struck radar sites in the north Jan. 26 in response to Iraqi threats. In one incident, a U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B fired a missile at an Iraqi radar after being targeted. In three other, separate engagements, Air Force F-15E fighters attacked air defense sites with precision-guided munitions or missiles after being targeted by Iraqi radar.