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Clinton OKs More Aggressive Response to Iraqi Attacks

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton has authorized the U.S. military to strike back more aggressively when Iraq's planes and air defenses threaten American pilots, his national security adviser said Tuesday.

Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger's comments offered the strongest suggestion yet that the skirmishing over the Western-imposed "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq could intensify further and lead to greater carnage.

The comments came as U.S. officials acknowledged Tuesday that a U.S. missile had strayed off course Monday, plowing into a residential neighborhood near the southern city of Basra, as Iraqi officials had previously reported. The errant missile killed 11 civilians and wounded dozens of others, according to Iraqi officials.

After four weeks of skirmishing over the no-fly zones including new confrontations Tuesday Berger said military commanders have been given "more expansive rules of engagement" against Iraqi provocations.

They are no longer required to respond only to Iraqi planes or ground installations that threaten them, he said, but can now also attack other parts of the broader air-defense network that is endangering fliers patrolling the zones.

"Our response, as appropriate, will be against any of the air-defense systems that we think make us vulnerable," Berger told a group of defense writers.

U.S. planes have fired several dozen missiles at Iraqi targets since the latest round of confrontations began after last month's U.S.-British air assault on Iraq.

Now the risk to life may be rising: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been moving some of his air-defense equipment nearer to civilian population centers, U.S. officials say, in an echo of his "human shield" strategy of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Officials insist that U.S. forces are going out of their way to avoid casualties but must reply to threatening moves.

Officials say plans for broader attacks have been prepared and are "on the shelf" but have not been approved by civilian authorities.