WASHINGTON - An American warplane yesterday fired at an Iraqi air defence site that turned its radar on, but the missiles apparently missed their target, a US Defense Department official said. It was the second incident in as many days despite an Iraqi ceasefire declaration.
An F-4G fighter launched two Harm missiles in the northern no-fly zone near Mosul after it and another fighter were 'locked on' by an Iraqi SA-3 anti-missile radar, the official said. 'First indications are that the missiles apparently missed the target. We don't know why that happened,' he said.
The source said the Harm missile is supposed to follow the radar signal into the target. The official said one possible reason for the miss was that the radar signal coming from the Iraqi installation was not strong enough.
The Defense Department said Iraq provoked a similar aerial attack on Thursday, but officials say they are not sure whether the incidents in the northern air-exclusion zone meant Iraq was resuming a pattern of hostility.
US military officials said two Air Force jets were 'illuminated', or targeted, by Iraqi radar on Thursday just inside the no-fly zone. One jet fired a missile at the radar and the other dropped bombs on it - a tit-for-tat response that had became a daily occurrence before Iraq declared a ceasefire on Tuesday.
President Bill Clinton said he would continue to insist that Iraq abide by the United Nations resolutions that dictated the terms of the end of the Gulf war. 'We're going to adhere to our policy,' Mr Clinton said. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government insisted the ceasefire remained in effect and denied the Defense Department's version of Thursday's events. It said in a statement attributed to an unidentified spokesman that no radar had been turned on and that the US bombs set alight a fertiliser storage area and damaged crops.
'Iraq still abides by its declared ceasefire despite the behavior of the US plane, which was aggressive and provocative,' the statement said.
Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, quoted by Baghdad radio, told heads of Arab and other diplomatic missions in Baghdad: 'Iraq is committed to the text and spirit of the (ceasefire) statement by the (ruling) Revolution Command Council.
At the Defense Department, on Les Aspin's first full day as Defense Secretary, a spokesman dismissed the Iraqi claim that its radar had not provoked the US bombing. 'We stand behind our report,' said Lieutenant-Commander Joseph Gradisher.
Col Dave Burpee, head of the Pentagon's directorate for defense information, said US patrol planes were continuing to fly surveillance missions over the northern and southern zones that are off-limits to Iraqi aircraft. He said it was too early to know whether Saddam Hussein was again actively challenging the no-fly zones, which his government considers to be illegal.
'We're going to judge him by his deeds and not his words,' Col Burpee said. 'We'll let the record speak for itself.'
Another US defence official said no Iraqi planes flew in either of the two no-fly zones on Thursday and that US and allied pilots patrolling the southern zone had encountered no Iraqi radar or artillery fire.
At the State Department, the newly installed Secretary Warren Christopher said US pilots patrolling the no-fly zones would continue to defend themselves against Iraqi air defence systems.