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U.S., Britain Strike No-Fly Zone In Iraq With Greater Frequency

By Vernon Loeb

U.S. and British warplanes have bombed more than 80 targets in Iraq’s southern “no-fly” zone over the past five months, conducting an escalating air war even as U.N. weapons inspections proceed and diplomats look for ways of heading off a full-scale war.

The air strikes have increased not only in number but in sophistication, with pilots using precision-guided bombs to strike what defense officials describe as mobile surface-to-air missiles, air defense radars, command centers, communications facilities and fiber optic cable repeater stations.

On Monday, the heaviest day of bombing in at least a year, U.S. and British jets for the first time struck five targets in a single day, hitting an air defense command site at Tallil, 170 miles southeast of Baghdad, and four repeater stations in southeastern Iraq. Iraq says that many of the attacks have been on non-military targets and have resulted in civilian deaths. The Iraqis said six people were injured in Monday’s air strikes, which they claimed included civilian targets in the southern city of Basra.

U.S. military officials said the attacks are only initiated in response to Iraqi fire, and that the increase mirrors an increase by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces in anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missile attacks on U.S. and British jets.

However, they acknowledged that military planners are taking full advantage of the opportunity Saddam is handing them, targeting Iraq’s integrated air defense network for destruction in a systemic fashion that will ease the way for U.S. air and ground forces if President Bush decides that war is the only option for disarming Iraq.

The aggressive tactics were ordered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who disclosed in September that he had urged commanders to focus their retaliatory strikes not just on Iraqi radar and missile systems, but on air defense communications centers in an attempt to degrade Iraq’s overall air defense network.

Last month, U.S. military officials acknowledged that they used an incident of Iraqi fire on jets patrolling the northern “no-fly” zone to justify a retaliatory strike in the south.

The tactic represented another escalation of enforcement activity by the Bush administration.

“The Iraqi regime has increased its attacks on the coalition, so the coalition has increased its efforts to protect its pilots,” said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa. “Every coalition action is in direct response to Iraqi hostile acts against our pilots, or the regime’s attempts to materially improve is military infrastructure south of the 33rd parallel.”