Top Pentagon officials are confirming the loss of an unmanned "Predator" spy plane over Iraq. The U.S. Air Force drone was apparently shot down by an Iraqi fighter plane over the southern "no-fly zone."
The propeller-driven Predator was the first coalition aircraft of any sort to be brought down by Iraqi forces since U.N. Security Council resolution November 8 demanding that Iraq dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.
At a Pentagon briefing, the chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Meyers said Iraq has long been trying to shoot down one of the patrol planes, and he did not see it as a military escalation relating to the U.N. resolution.
"They've been attempting, they attempt to shoot down all our aircraft that fly over southern and northern Iraq in support of the U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said. "And they got a lucky shot today and they brought down the Predator. But I don't see it as an escalation, it's been something they've been doing for literally the last couple of years."
General Meyers said two other Predators, multi-million dollar drones that carry sophisticated surveillance cameras, have been lost over southern Iraq in the last 15 months.
Monday's incident came amid a growing U.S.-led military buildup in the Gulf region that includes thousands of troops, and the deployment to the region of aircraft, tanks and support equipment.
But appearing with General Meyers at the news briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the activity, including alerts to U.S. reserve forces, does not mean President Bush has decided on military action against Iraq.
"None of these steps reflect a decision by the president, or the United Nations, or anyone else to my knowledge to use force. The president has not made such a decision," he said. "Rather they are intended to support the diplomatic efforts that are underway, to enhance force protection in the region and elsewhere in the world including the United States, and to make clear to the Iraqi regime that they need to comply with their U.N. obligations."
Mr. Rumsfeld said he doubted Iraq would have accepted the return of U.N. weapons inspectors under last month's Security Council resolution in the absence of the show of U.S. resolve, and the use of military force would be President Bush's "last choice" to force Iraq to comply.