The Pentagon, meanwhile, admitted that Iraqi radar had not been tracking a US Navy A-6 jet when the pilot bombed a military site near Nasiriyah, in the southern no-fly zone, on Saturday night. The pilot saw flashes in the sky and, thinking he was being fired on by anti-aircraft guns, dropped a 1,000lb laser-guided bomb.
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman denied reports that Iraqi air defences had fired on Saturday night on three American fighters over the southern no-fly zone. The spokesman said that no radars or air defences were turned on and insisted that Iraq was still observing the ceasefire declared on 19 January. He said the authorities were looking for the spot where US fighters were said to have fired a laser-guided bomb.
The Americans have said they are responding to Iraqi provocation. But it is far from clear who is cat and who is mouse in this series of encounters. The suspicion is growing in Baghdad that President Clinton is clinging to the coat-tails of his predecessor. One newspaper accused Bush supporters in the US defence establishment seeking to provoke a confrontation.
There is surprise and dismay in government circles that Mr Clinton has responded to Iraq's attempt to turn a new page in relations with the US by continuing the policy of his predecessor. Iraq is not a country where a local commander would wilfully ignore the very explicit instructions from the leadership not to turn on radar to track US patrols. Hence the Iraqi response that these reports were fabricated by the Pentagon, to draw the leadership into making some rash response.