U.S. defends pilot’s firing at Iraqi missile site

WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. F-16 pilot fired a missile Saturday when he thought he was being targeted by an Iraqi missile site, but no Iraqi radar attempted to lock on to the aircraft, the Pentagon said Sunday.
The Pentagon defended the pilot’s action, saying his cockpit instruments had indicated he was being targeted, and under the rules of engagement he was allowed to respond to what he perceived as a hostile act.
“Subsequent analysis did not support the initial indications of radar activity,” the Pentagon said in a statement. It did not say what damage was done by the missile, noting that it was still being assessed.
A Pentagon military source, asked how the confusion occurred, said the pilot did hear an auditory signal indicating the F-16 had been locked onto, but apparently it was a false reading, later analysis showed. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon’s admission calmed concerns that a new outbreak of hostilities was possible as the U.S. elections approached.
Iraq denied that any incident took place. Its official news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying, “Fabricating this false report is part of American-style electioneering” — a reference to the U.S. presidential elections on Tuesday.
The F-16 returned safely to base in Saudi Arabia after the incident at about 12:30 p.m. local time (4:30 a.m. EST) near the 32nd parallel southeast of Kut Al Hayy, in the “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq, the Pentagon said.
The aircraft was assigned to the 4404th wing at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Air Force personnel were moved following the June 25 bombing of a military housing complex near the eastern city of Dhahran that killed 19 Americans.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry, traveling with President Clinton in Tampa, Fla., said Clinton had been briefed on the incident by a member of the National Security Council.
Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the United States and its allies have maintained a “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq.
The U.S. missile firing was the first of its kind since Sept. 4, when Iraqi forces confronted U.S. flyers twice as they began their patrols over an expanded no-fly zone for Iraqi aircraft that Washington unilaterally declared the day before.
An Iraqi air defense radar site illuminated an Air Force F-16 with its signal, a potential precursor to firing a surface-to-air missile. The warplane responded by unleashing an anti-radar missile, and the site went silent, Defense Secretary William Perry said at the time.
Clinton vowed to stand tough against such Iraqi threats, saying, “We will do whatever we have to do in the future to protect our pilots.”
To reinforce the buffer zone between Iraq and its neighbors, Clinton announced Sept. 3 that the no-fly zone would be expanded about 60 miles farther north, to the 33rd parallel. That would take it to the suburbs of Baghdad, where a defiant Saddam Hussein ordered his armed forces to shoot down any foreign aircraft.
The confrontations over the no-fly zone followed two separate strikes by a total of 44 cruise missiles against 15 Iraqi air-defense sites.
The strikes against Iraqi air defense sites were sparked by Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds in the north.
The Iraqi statement said, “These American claims are absolutely baseless. No incident of any kind took place inside Iraq’s airspace in southern Iraq.”