Pentagon sources say the United States is seriously considering a military response to Iraq's latest efforts to shoot down coalition aircraft monitoring the southern no-fly zone.
For obvious security reasons, Pentagon officials are giving no hints as to future U.S. retaliatory plans against Iraq. They only repeat their now standard mantra: "We reserve the right to respond at the time, location, and manner of our choosing."
But it is apparent U.S. officials are growing increasingly concerned about Iraqi behavior following a series of recent incidents. These include one in which an Iraqi surface-to-air missile nearly hit a U.S. U-2 spy plane, a second in which the crew of a Navy radar plane reported being targeted by an Iraqi missile while inside Kuwaiti airspace, and a third in which two Iraqi fighters entered the no-fly zone, possibly in an attempt to target a U.S. unmanned reconnaissance drone.
The activity led President Bush this week to vow to keep the pressure on Baghdad. "There is no question that Saddam Hussein is still a menace and a problem and the United States and our allies must put the pressure on him," Mr. Bush said.
The question is how? Coalition jets patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq routinely respond to Iraqi missile and anti-aircraft artillery fire by shooting at individual weapons and radar sites.
But last February, U.S. and British aircraft staged a large-scale attack on Iraqi early warning radar and command and control sites close to Baghdad that were linked to air defense sites further south.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, says much of this so-called integrated air defense system has now been rebuilt, suggesting it could be targeted again. "It has largely been reconstituted. As we said at the time, this was not going to be a permanent impact," Admiral Quigley said. "We constantly take a look at that, take a look at the components of the Iraqi integrated air defense system, and if we feel that they are contributing too much in the way of a threat to coalition aircraft, we reserve the right to respond in a manner and a time and a place of our choosing."
Pentagon officials say Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has made it a priority to down coalition aircraft in the no-fly zones. The zones were set up in the wake of the Gulf War to protect minority populations in the northern and southern border regions as well as neighboring countries from possible Iraqi attack.
In this year alone, the Pentagon says there have been more than 350 incidents in which Iraqi missiles and anti-aircraft fire have been directed at coalition planes in the southern no-fly zone.