B-52s on alert after Iraqis fire at US fighters

Latest fracas shows Saddam is still not a spent force. Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent Online
Washington - The US was last night poised to take stinging retaliation against Saddam Hussein after Iraqi forces yesterday fired a ground-to- air missile at two US fighters in the northern "no-fly zone" and an Iraqi jet and helicopter both breached the no-fly zone in the south of the country.

Using some of the toughest language since the latest crisis began, the Defense Secretary, William Perry warned that the Iraqi leader had been "foolish".

He would "very soon" learn that Washington was not playing games and that the American response would be "disproportionate" to what he called the new provocations from Baghdad.

To underline the warning, four B-52 bombers like those used in last week's cruise-missile strikes have been moved closer, from their base on the Pacific island of Guam to Britain's Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia.

The US is also sending eight F-117 stealth bombers to the region, each capable of delivering 2,000lb laser-guided bombs against Iraq communication centres or other strategic targets. The planes, virtually undetectable by enemy radar, will operate from Kuwait, officials said.

According to the Pentagon, the F-16s were attacked by a single Soviet- built Sam-6 missile. The missile missed its targets, but Iraqi radar was turned off so quickly that the US aircraft had no time to return fire.

Signals sent by the Clinton administration yesterday seemed to leave little doubt that the omission would soon be made good.

The incident took place in late morning Iraqi time, 3.58am Washington time, midway between Zakho and Mosul in the northern, Kurdish-inhabited portion of Iraq. An Iraqi military spokesman said Baghdad's forces had launched three separate attacks against "the criminal American enemy and those who are taking part with it." But the Pentagon said only one missile, a "wild shot" in Mr Perry's words, was fired.

Further evidence that Washington is preparing the ground for a new series of attacks against Iraqi targets are the carefully orchestrated accusations from the State and Defense departments that President Saddam is rebuilding various air-defence installations in the south that had been destroyed by the 44 cruise missiles launched in last week's two strikes.

New radar units had been brought in, officials say, implying that fresh action might be required to eliminate them. But Mr Perry implied that air strikes this time could be considerably more extensive.

As the military sparring continued between Baghdad and Washington, so did assessment here of the diplomatic and domestic political repercussions of the renewed challenge from President Saddam. Officially, the US insists that its earlier attacks have hamstrung the Iraqi leader in the south, where he poses the greatest strategic danger to Western interests.

But complaints are growing that President Bill Clinton has acted neither strongly enough nor in the right area to counter President Saddam. Even White House officials privately admit that Mr Clinton was over optimistic when he claimed last week the cruise missiles had achieved their objective by inflicting a substantial strategic setback on the Iraqi leader.

Senior Republican spokesmen like Senator John McCain of Arizona, a foreign- policy adviser of presidential candidate Bob Dole, argue that the US must inflict real damage on Iraq to deter further aggression and shore up US credibility. And, Mr McCain claims, President Saddam's real power lies in his army, predominantly deployed towards the north, and not with his air force and air defences in the south.

Thus far, anxious to avoid charges of undermining national support for the military, Mr Dole has avoided direct criticism of Mr Clinton's handling of a crisis which has virtually driven his own faltering campaign from the headlines.

His running-mate, Jack Kemp, has been less bashful, accusing Mr Clinton of displaying "a lot of vacillation" and a "failure to define his objectives" in the Gulf. The White House predictably denounced Mr Kemp for playing politics with a crisis. But Mr Clinton too is perforce playing politics. The last thing he wants as the 1996 campaign moves towards its climax is American prisoners falling into President Saddam's hands and being paraded on Iraqi television. Hence the probable use of F-117s, where the risks to pilots are low.