U.S. and British warplanes have carried out targeted attacks against Iraqi anti-aircraft sites that U.S. military officials say have been posing increasing threats to allied aircraft. The Pentagon describes the most extensive allied air strikes in Iraq in several years as a necessary act of self-defense.
President Bush authorized these air strikes in advance, and in response to what Pentagon spokesman General Gregory Newbold described as increasingly bold threats from Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. "On a nearly a daily basis they were posing an increased risk so in order to continue to accomplish our mission and avoid the loss of aircraft, we had really no choice in this but to conduct the strike," said the general.
Twenty-four allied aircraft struck at least five command and control sites, all but one of them North of Iraq's southern no-fly zone, and some only a few kilometers from Baghdad, where explosions and air raid sirens were heard Friday night. Iraq is reporting a number of civilian casualties. The Pentagon says all of the planes appear to have hit their intended targets and that at no time did allied aircraft venture north of the edge of the southern no-fly zone.
"We think we've accomplished what we were looking for in the sense to degrade, disrupt the ability of the Iraqi air defenses to coordinate attacks against our aircraft," said General Nebold."
British and American fighters jets have been on daily patrol over Iraq's no-fly zones since they were created at the end of the Gulf war a decade ago, and in recent months they have taken part in almost daily bombings of targets considered threats to allied aircraft. But the allied front against Iraq that was on display during the Gulf War a decade ago has since frayed. France, Russia and China now favor an easing of United Nations sanctions, as do many of Iraq's own Arab neighbors, believing they no longer effectively target the Iraqi government but are hurting civilians.
Friday's U.S. and British air strikes come a week before Secretary of State Colin Powell, the top American general during the Gulf War, is set to visit some of Iraq's Persian Gulf neighbors. It's a trip aimed in part at reinforcing sanctions that demand Baghdad allow U.N. inspectors to resume searching for weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Powell says he believes Iraq has rebuilt in the time since the inspectors were expelled in 1998.