The Pentagon says Iraq may have shot down an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance plane Monday, flying over a southern part of the country. Several times this month, U.S. and British jets have attacked Iraqi defense sites in response to what Pentagon officials say have been increasing attempts by Baghdad to bring down an allied fighter jet. These counterstrikes have not deterred Baghdad from continuing to challenge allied pilots.
At the Pentagon, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan suspects Iraq may have succeeded in shooting down the U.S. surveillance aircraft known as a drone, an unmanned plane capable of sending back live images of Iraqi defense sites. "The suspicion of a shoot down," he said, "is because the Iraqis have claimed to have shot down an aircraft. We don't know enough yet to declare one way or another."
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Iraq had rebuilt and improved its air defenses, posing a greater threat to the coalition pilots who patrol the country's northern and southern no fly zones. U.S. and British jets had knocked out some radar and command centers during air strikes in February and have struck again at Iraqi targets over the past several weeks.
Even so, Administration officials say Iraqi challenges to allied air patrols have become increasingly aggressive. In fact, last month, an Iraqi surface to air missile narrowly missed an Air Force U-2 spy plane.
All of this comes at a time when the Bush administration is searching for a new overall policy toward Iraq. Lieutenant Colonel Lapan said, "A big piece of that obviously at the Department of Defense is enforcement and monitoring of the no fly zones and how we do that. That's one of the aspects that's being looked at in an inter-agency review of overall Iraq policy."
The review also includes plans for tougher United Nations sanctions to limit Baghdad's ability to import goods with military value coupled with increased funding for opposition groups.
But Washington has not been able to get a package of tougher sanctions through the United Nations Security Council. Like many Middle East experts, Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of the U.N. weapons inspection team which left Iraq three years ago, believes the worsening conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is only making Washington's job tougher.
"The United States is not in a good situation because the United States is seen as supporting Israel in this tragedy taking place between the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Mr. Duelfer. "Saddam Hussein has benefited by that because he is seen as the one leader in the region who is standing up to the Americans. He's standing up to the last superpower. He is attacking their aircraft. He is offering assistance to the Palestinians."
And there have been reports of divisions within the Bush administration between those who think tougher sanctions alone are sufficient and others, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who have argued for much more aggressive action, including steps to topple Saddam Hussein.