25 January 1999
(U.S. responds against Iraqi air defense system) (970) By Susan Ellis and Jacqui Porth USIA Security Affairs Writers Washington -- The military commander of the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) says Iraq is carrying out "a coordinated, centralized effort" in both northern and southern Iraq to threaten coalition enforcement of the no-fly zones. Marine General Anthony Zinni told reporters at the Pentagon January 25 that Iraq is stepping up the frequency, intensity and coordination of its entire air defense system which has been repeatedly threatening U.S. and British aircraft patrolling Iraqi no-fly zones. Zinni stressed that Iraq's entire air defense system "is a threat to us." At the same time, he added, "we know we have damaged their air defense system." Still, the U.S. military recognizes that Iraq has "a very robust system" which has considerable redundancy as well as "the ability to repair or replace" elements of it. "There are almost three times the number of surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries in the southern area and movement of these surface-to-air missile batteries on occasion which obviously makes it more difficult for our fliers to know where they are and where the threat may be posed," Zinni said. He added that the entire Iraqi air defense system, composed of "not only aircraft fighters that would come down and engage planes, but also the surface-to-air missiles and triple-A batteries (anti-aircraft), radars and early-warning means and communications...has been centrally controlled and turned on to oppose our enforcement of the no-fly zone sanctions both north and south." The general said the degree of Iraqi coordination has increased in sophistication as well as frequency since "Operation Desert Fox" ended in December, adding, "On several occasions we have 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 SAM-bushes." He said the allied military has detected early-warning systems as well as optical guidance systems being used "obviously to prevent turning on radars which would make targeting for us much easier." There has been a clear indication, Zinni said, "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." He said the U.S. has "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 triple-A 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." But the military commander also suggested that Iraq's air defense system may be suffering strains and that Saddam Hussein may no longer be in a position to sustain continue losses at the current rate. Asked about the motivations of Saddam Hussein, Zinni said "he wants to shoot down an American airplane." Asked why the United States has not targeted Iraqi aircraft with greater frequency, the official said there has been an evident "lack of will to engage" by Iraqi pilots. He raised the possibility that the latest series of actions by the Iraqi regime are acts of desperation by Iraq's top leadership. What would be the cure for this, Zinni asked rhetorically? "A post-Saddam regime," he replied. Following press reports of civilian casualties around the Iraqi city of Basra, Zinni said U.S. aircraft "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." He emphasized that U.S. targeting and execution of airstrikes "are done in a manner to minimize any civilian casualties or damage to civilian property, but no one can guarantee that these strikes will not have errors." He said coalition military forces make "every possible attempt to ensure that that doesn't happen both in our planning and in the process of our execution." The United States "deeply regrets" any loss of civilian life, Zinni said because "we do everything humanly possible to prevent that." He also stressed that "the ultimate reason and cause for these casualties is Saddam Hussein" because of his repeated attacks against coalition aircraft and "his history of disregard for the welfare of his own people." The CENTCOM commander pressed the point that civilian casualties "are the cause of actions initiated by Saddam." He noted the tactics the Iraqi leader has pursued in the past by putting civilians at risk including parking Iraqi aircraft within cities, moving military units close to local populations, and using human shields at military targets. All of this shows disregard for the Iraqi people, he said. The military official indicated that it is possible that one missile may not have performed as expected. "There is still a need for us to review the strike," he added. Meanwhile, the U.S. commander said there have been reports of an Iraqi missile buildup in the south of the country near the port of Basra as well as potential movement of Iraqi heavy armored units; neither of which poses a direct threat to Kuwait or U.S. military forces in the region.