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Iraqi Warplanes, U.S. Fighter Jets Clash Over "No-Fly" Zone

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Escalating its challenge to the United States' new policy of "containment-plus," Iraq sent more than a dozen warplanes Tuesday into the skies over its southern "no-fly" zone, where they tangled with patrolling U.S. jets.

Four U.S. fighter jets twice responded with missiles in the first air-to-air confrontations in six years over one of Iraq's two no-fly zones, the Pentagon reported. But the missiles failed to hit any of the Iraqi warplanes.

In the wake of the third clash between the United States and Iraq in nine days, Clinton administration officials are now predicting that confrontations with Iraq are likely to become a more regular and troublesome challenge to U.S. foreign policy in 1999 as both sides try to force the other's hand.

Iraq's immediate goal in the latest violations apparently was to lure U.S. planes patrolling the zones into missile traps. All U.S. aircraft, however, returned safely to their bases. But one Iraqi warplane crashed, possibly because it ran out of fuel, according to Pentagon officials. Iraq limits fuel for its air force planes to prevent defections.

As many as 15 Iraqi planes may have been engaged in Tuesday's eight violations, which all involved crossing over the 33rd parallel that demarcates the southern no-fly zone, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth M. Bacon said. The zones, in the north and south, were set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect ethnic minorities.

The two air-to-air altercations Tuesday, which pitted U.S. F-14s and F-15s against Iraq's Russian-made MIG-25s, were 15 minutes apart. The American planes fired a total of six missiles.

The confrontations were the first in the air over Iraq's Shiite-dominated south since Dec. 27, 1992, when a U.S. F-16 shot down an Iraqi MIG-25.

The regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a different version of the incident. "The hawks of our brave air force confronted and clashed with the aggressive American and British planes, and the enemy planes withdrew. All the planes of our air force returned to their bases safely," said a military spokesman quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency.

But Iraq's intentions were reflected in a speech by Hussein, who escalated the war of words Tuesday by calling the zone illegal and pledging that Iraq would challenge intrusions of its airspace "with all its courage and bravery."