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Operation Southern Watch Update

Presenters: General Anthony C. Zinni, CINC, CENTCOMOperation
January 25, 1999 5:00 PM EDT

Southern Watch Update

Mr. Bacon: General Zinni -- the Commander of the Central Command is in town -- has arrived in town for the CINC's conference, and we asked him to come by and address some of the questions of the day, and he's happily here. This will be relatively short, 15 or 20 minutes, becuase you have to file, and he has to do other things as well.

General Zinni.

General Zinni: Let me make a few statements to begin with and maybe address some of the points that I think you may bring up.

Since DESERT FOX, we've had over 70 no-fly zone violations with well over 100 Iraqi aircraft involved, and there's been almost 20 incidents of missile firings at our planes, AAA firings and radar illuminations in that same period of time.

What we're seeing now is an increase in frequency, intensity, [and] coordination of their entire air defense system against our planes flying in both the north and the south.

We are seeing, for example, almost three times the number of surface-to-air missile batteries in the southern area, and movement of these surface-to-air missile batteries on occasion, which obviously makes it more difficult for our flyers to know where they are and where the threat may be posed.

You all know, I believe, that the anti-air defense system is composed not only of aircraft, fighters that would come down and engage planes, but also the surface-to-air missiles, AAA batteries, radars, early warning means, and communications. It's evident to us that this entire system has been centrally controlled and turned on to oppose our enforcement of the no-fly zone sanctions, both north and south.

We have seen this degree of coordination in fairly sophisticated ways since DESERT FOX. On several occasions we've seen packages of airplanes, two and three per flight coming down in coordinated fashion, working in cooperation with surface-to-air missile batteries, trying to lure us down into what has become known as SAMbushes. We have obviously detected early warning systems, optical guidance means being used obviously to prevent turning on radars, which would make targeting for us much easier.

This has been a clear indication that this is orchestrated and obviously is part of the declared objective by the Iraqi leaders to violate the no-fly zone sanctions and to shoot down our planes that are patrolling these zones.

We responded within our rules of engagement by defending ourselves and attacking this air defense system.

Today we had five violations of the no-fly zone in the south and one in the north by a total of 12 Iraqi fighters; plus, we had radar illumination of our aircraft in the north and also AAA fire detected by our aircraft in the north. We responded with attacks in the north and the south. These attacks were against missile batteries, radars, early warning systems, communications, both in the north and in the south -- not the same systems in the north and south, but included in both attacks.

There was a report today of civilian casualties in the Basrah area. As I told you, we struck targets in the south and in this general area, and we are in the process now of reviewing our strikes and other intelligence to determine if the possible cause of this might have been one of our missiles, if in fact, these casualties are confirmed.

As you know, our targeting and execution of our strikes are done in a manner to minimize any civilian casualties or damage to civilian property. No one can guarantee that these strikes will not have errors or that we might not have errant ordnance, but we do take every possible attempt to ensure that that doesn't happen, both in our planning and in the process of our execution.

We deeply regret any civilian casualties, regardless of what the cause may be, but these exchanges have been initiated by Saddam Hussein. This has been a deliberate onset of repeated attacks against our forces. I think just by following the track since DESERT FOX you realize these are increasing not only in numbers but in intensity, and we've seen, in fact, that the sophistication and the coordination and the experimentation, if you will, on the ways to come at us have increased.

This poses a threat to our aircraft, both in the north and the south. 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. And we will defend our pilots and our aircraft against these attacks.

I'll be glad to take your questions.

Q: Having said that, this is sort of a moderate response, I guess you'd say, yet we have been told by senior defense officials that if this continues there would not be a tit for tat response, but a response going in and taking out much of his air defense system, airfields, and what have you.

Is that in the works? Is that imminent? And how long will we be patient?

A: I wouldn't get in, obviously, into any planning or discussion of any plans. I would say that if you look at this in its total, this would not have been a tit for tat response if you're on the other end. Since DESERT FOX and since he's chosen to engage us in this manner, he's lost considerable portions of his air defense system.

Now I would tell you right up front that he has a very robust system, with a lot of redundancy and the ability to repair or to replace to an extent. That extent may be getting strained now, and I don't think he's in a position that he could continue to sustain these losses at these rates with his lack of success.

Q: Let me follow up, if I may. You talked about, I believe, over 70 violations involving Iraqi aircraft.

A: Yes.

Q: Yet none of these targets today were aimed against the aircraft. Do you have any plan to take out his planes on the ground?

And one other formal question on that is, we've fired air-to-air missiles several times at these planes and haven't hit anything. Are the missiles faulty? They're very expensive. What's going on?

A: I think what you're saying is maybe lack of the will to engage by these Iraqi pilots. They obviously come down, tuck their nose in, and then race home. Our ability to engage them, obviously, would had to have been at very long range.

Remember, I mentioned that in some cases these planes have attempted to lure us into missile engagement zones where there's heavy surface-to-air missile fire that we could draw. We obviously don't fall for this sort of bait or lure, and we have engaged him at longer ranges because we know he won't close in any further to engage us before he races back north or south of the line.

Q: General Zinni...

Q:...take the planes out on the ground? There was one last part of the question.

A: I think a decision to take the campaign to something like that is a policy decision and not within my purview.

Q: General Zinni, based on what you know now, how likely is it that the damage Iraq says was done to a residential neighborhood in Basrah was in fact caused by an errant U.S. missile? Do you think it's very likely, not very likely? Based on what you know now.

A: Based on what we know now, I think there's still a need for us to review the strike. It's possible that we did have a missile that didn't perform as expected, but before I would say any more, I want to make sure that we've investigated thoroughly. We need more information. We should have that shortly. It's obviously in the general area of where we have conducted a strike. We did not conduct a strike in any fashion, in any way where we expected any collateral damage, and we took every precaution to avoid it.

Q:...hand Saddam Hussein a propaganda coup?

A: I think civilian casualties, obviously regretted by us, are the cause of actions initiated by Saddam Hussein. I think the placement of air defense systems, the placement of military forces -- obviously what we've seen since DESERT STORM, the dispersal of aircraft in cities, the movement of military units and putting them in close proximity to civilians, the use of human shields -- I think clearly points out his disregard and his lack of care about his own population. These actions are the result of his initiating strikes against our aircraft that were simply patrolling the no-fly zone.

Q: General...

Q: General, let me confirm that these strikes were caused by...

Q: Sir...

Q:...American missiles. Will the American government apologize to the Iraqis?

A: I think first of all we have to make a determination as to what the cause is and we're in the process of doing that, and I don't want to get into hypothetical situations or next steps. Let us first determine [as] best we can what the cause might be of this incident.

Q: General...

Q:...the pilots, sir?

A: I'm sorry?

Q: Were there any preliminary indications from the pilots when they returned, that they may have been, there may have been a problem with them?

A: Obviously we review and have debriefings from each mission. In the course of these debriefings and reviews we have the possibility of one missile that may have been errant. There's still a requirement and a need for us to look closer and to further examine this, and that's in the process now.

Q: General, what's he do? What's his strategy? What's behind this? Is he trying to increase his support in the Arab nations by having incidences frequently? Is he trying to get ahold of a couple of American pilots perhaps as trophies? What do you think he's doing, and what do you think is the remedy? What's the strategy to counter...

A: I think, first of all, clearly, he wants to shoot down an American airplane. Whether he wants a pilot to parade in Baghdad, what his purpose is, who the target audience is for this act, is it the so-called Arab street? He obviously has not succeeded in convincing Arab leaders in the region to support him. They obviously feel that he's been responsible for everything that's happened. That's come out in statements they've made. He's much more isolated. A question could be made as to whether these are becoming acts of desperation. What's the cure for all of this? A post-Saddam regime, in my view.

Q: General, you said initially, I think, that there were three times as many SAM batteries in the southern zone. Did you mean three times as many since DESERT...

A: Yes.

Q: Is that not a violation of the southern no-fly zone? How come we're allowing them to remain there?

A: These are violations, and of course they have been moved around. They have on occasion engaged us and illuminated us, and we have engaged them.

There were closer to three times. There's less now. And that's a result of the violations of the no-fly zone.

Q: What other weapon systems have you seen the Iraqis move into the southern zone? Especially around Basrah.

A: We've had reports of a buildup of some missile systems that could be ground missile systems. We've had reports, again, that have been in the open media of potential armor movement. We have not see anything that we feel poses a direct threat to us or to Kuwait. But there's been some activity and some buildup on the ground side.

Q: There was a report that an oil refinery was hit today. Do you have any insight as to that?

A: No, I don't.

Q: General, there have been now more than about two dozen of these incidents where U.S. aircraft have dropped missiles or bombs on air defense sites. What degradation to the system have these caused?

A: I don't want to get into specifics because we get into intelligence sources. We know we have damaged his air defense system. We know there are missile systems that he's lost, radars that he's lost, and other attendant parts of this overall air defense system -- communication facilities, etc. Some of these have been replaced; some of these have been moved around.

Obviously, during DESERT FOX we hit a missile repair facility for these types of missiles, and we know we did significant damage there.

We are still in the process of assessing his overall capabilities and what damage we've done and his ability to reconstitute and repair. We are seeing certain things that are encouraging for us. I would not like to go into detail, again because of intelligence sources.

Q: General Zinni, today the provocation in the south was the incursion by Iraqi aircraft in the southern no-fly zone, and the response was an attack against surface-to-air missiles on the ground. Is that in any sense a preemptive strike? Is that in any way preemptive in the sense that it's not -- you didn't chase the planes back over the no-fly zone?

A: Again, I would say that we viewed the entire air defense system as the threat, and we do [so] for good reason. This entire system, we have seen, in a coordinated fashion directly threaten our planes, where missile batteries and planes in coordination have engaged in some sort of tactic to lure us in. We've obviously detected the early warning and communication and coordination procedures. So we have taken the view that this entire air defense system is a threat to us -- not picked out specific things like those airplanes on this given day, that battery at this given moment, because the whole system, again, has threatened us.

Unlike previous to DESERT FOX where we may have seen isolated incidents where maybe a single battery or an air defense sector or even a gunner that might have been a little trigger happy that day fired at us, this is obviously, and it's been declared to be, a coordinated, centralized effort, north and south, with their entire air defense system.

Q: General Zinni, regardless of how it might have happened, if the deaths today that occurred were inflicted by a U.S. bomb, are you worried that our Arab friends in the region will find it politically impossible to continue to host us?

A: I would want our friends in the region to know several things. One, that we deeply regret any loss of civilian lives or civilian casualties or injuries. Secondly, that we do everything humanly possible to prevent that. And thirdly, and most important, the ultimate reason and cause for these casualties is Saddam Hussein. His attacks against us and his history of disregard for the welfare of his own people, which manifests itself not only in the humanitarian side but in the direct attacks he's conducted, and the use of human shields and the location of military pieces of equipment in civilian areas -- this has been, I think, well documented ever since DESERT STORM and even before.

Q: General, we've been talking about now...

Q: Is there still a no-drive zone in the south? And have you seen a movement of SAM sites into residential areas?

A: We have seen some SAM sites near residential areas and other civilian kinds of areas like commercial areas and that sort of thing. Is there still a no-drive zone in the south? Yes, there is. There is a no-drive zone and a no-drive sanction that is in place.

Q: Following up on that, can you give us a little more detail about what the target of today's strike was? And was it something that had been placed in a residential neighborhood?

A: There were several targets in the south and in the general region. Surface-to-air...

Q: (inaudible)

A: Again, we need to know more about whether this is confirmed or when this situation is confirmed, as to where the civilian casualties are before we can make our assessment as to if it possibly was one of our missiles, which strike might have caused this. Obviously, direction, type of ordnance, range, all that has to be taken into consideration.

I will tell you in a general sense, in this area we struck communications facilities, radars, surface-to-air missile batteries.

Q: Can you specify at all what kinds of ordnance were used by the U.S. planes? AGM-130s...

A: AGM-130s, GBUs, HARMs.

Q: All three?

A: Yes.

Thank you very much.

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