US plane opens fire on radar site in south Iraq: Missile strike on Baghdad helps President's poll ratings but many question his ability to cure the economy

AN AMERICAN aircraft fired a missile at an anti-aircraft radar site in southern Iraq yesterday after two US planes were tracked by Iraqi radar. President Bill Clinton played down the incident, saying: 'If radar locks on to our airplanes, our airplanes are authorised to fire. I wouldn't read too much into it.'

In Baghdad, anti-aircraft gunners opened fire, apparently fearing another US raid. An Iraqi official said it was nervous gunners shooting at an Iraqi plane by mistake.

In the southern Iraq incident, a US F-FG Wild Weasel fired a Harm (high speed anti-radiation missile) at the radar outside Basra. The US Air Force attributes its low casualties in the Gulf war to the effectiveness of the Harm: only four allied planes were lost to Iraqi radar guided anti-aircraft missiles. To avoid attack, Iraqi radar operators would only turn on their radars for brief periods.

Speaking of the assassination bid against President Bush, Mr Clinton said yesterday it was clearly authorised 'at the highest level' in Baghdad. But he refused to say if he meant Saddam Hussein himself.

The weekend missile strike on Iraq has given a sharp boost to President Clinton's popularity, helping him to recover from political setbacks earlier in the year. The number of Americans who approve of the way he is doing his job as President has risen from 39 per cent to 50 per cent following the bombing.

The weekend attack on Baghdad is approved by two-thirds of Americans, according to opinion polls. US readiness to act against Iraq remains much greater than willingness to use military force in Bosnia, where polls consistently show a majority opposing use of American airpower.

On the eve of Mr Clinton's departure for the Tokyo summit of the Group of Seven industrial countries next week, the White House is pleased that people surveyed in a New York Times/CBS poll were impressed by the President's action in Iraq and Somalia: 49 per cent approve of the way he is handling foreign policy, compared with 38 per cent before the attack on Baghdad.

But the benefits to Mr Clinton may be short-term. A Gallup study on the effect that presidents' military action and diplomatic coups over the past 20 years have had on poll ratings indicates that they improve approval by an average of 8 per cent but the impact only lasts 10 weeks. The study also indicates that the sudden increase in popularity has not always translated into electoral victory.

Mr Clinton is keen not to give the impression that Somalia and Iraq are diverting him from the economic issues on which he won the election. At his first Cabinet meeting since the attack he said: 'I think it's very important today at this Cabinet meeting that we move on to other matters, that we go back to the domestic agenda.'

His vulnerability on the economy is underlined by the poll, which indicates that the number of Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the economy has grown from 54 to 55 per cent over the past weekend. A majority still say he is prone to make serious mistakes in handling the problems which face a president.

LONDON - The British businessman brother of a victim of the Baghdad bombing said last night he was 'disgusted' it has been endorsed by the government. Kais Al-Kaisy, 45, a medical export company chief, 'thought it was a dream' when he heard his brother Maan, 40, and 18-month-old nephew Mohammed had been killed.

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