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U.S. Aircraft Bomb Iraq In Largest Strike of Campaign

By Dana Priest

U.S. warplanes dropped more than 30 laser-guided bombs Monday on military targets in northern Iraq, the largest one-day strike in what has become a low-grade air war designed to destroy Iraq’s air defense system while attracting as little attention as possible from Washington’s Arab allies.

Since President Clinton gave pilots more flexibility to attack Iraq’s air defense system at the end of January, allied planes enforcing U.S.-imposed no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq have substantially increased the number of bombs they have dropped and have added to the target list, according to U.S. administration and Pentagon officials.

“Absolutely this is an escalation,” said one government official who has been briefed on the operation.

Pentagon officials, who have declined repeatedly to give anything but the sketchiest details about the almost daily attacks, have said the pilots are only responding to Iraqi attempts to shoot down the U.S. and British planes that patrol the no-fly zone. The zone covers 60 percent of the country and is not recognized by Iraq.

“We responded to attacks upon our aircraft by targeting those facilities that allowed the Iraqi forces to place our pilots in jeopardy,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said Monday when asked about an air attack over the weekend that Iraq says interrupted the flow of oil through its main oil pipeline.

But senior officials acknowledge that at times the artillery fire or radar used to target planes from the ground is so far from allied pilots that it is not even detected by them, but only by satellites and other high-flying aircraft employed by the United States to monitor Iraq.

Another official said the United States has a list of air defense system targets, and suggested that allied aircraft are flying in the vicinity of the particular missile launchers, radar trucks and communications relay links that they would like to destroy. After Iraqi forces fire anti-aircraft artillery or turn on radar to target a particular aircraft, allied planes launch a strike against the target.

The United States has pursued a this low-grade aerial bombardment since the Desert Fox offensive against Iraq ended in December because it is the only military course of action that a war-weary Congress and the Gulf Arab countries will agree to, senior officials say. “An attack against Iraq’s air defense system is what sustains the coalition,” said one senior administration official. “These aircraft are based in countries that would be broadly sensitive” to a larger, more public war against Iraq.

On Jan. 26, U.S. officials announced that U.S. warplanes no longer had to limit their attacks to the missile and artillery batteries that are targeting them or to the particular Iraqi aircraft that were darting in and out of the no-fly zone. “Our response need not simply be against the particular source of the violation,” explained Sandy Berger, the president’s national security adviser. “But our response as appropriate will be against any of the air defense system that we think makes us vulnerable.”

Since then, the lopsided war has escalated considerably. Of the 86 laser-guided bombs that U.S. warplanes have dropped in northern Iraq since the end of Desert Fox, 66 were dropped since Jan. 30, according to defense briefing documents