WASHINGTON — Dictator Saddam Hussein has moved more surface-to-air missiles into the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq since U.S. warplanes shot down an Iraqi jet fighter in the forbidden airspace, Pentagon officials said Monday.
Military sources said the purpose of the buildup is unclear, since Iraq's forces in the south have no air cover and are highly vulnerable to punishing and swift U.S. counterattack. "There's obviously a reason for it, but frankly we don't yet know what Saddam's intent is," one official said.
Pentagon planners are now considering military options, including destroying the missiles and more aggressive enforcement of the no-fly zone. The official said that U.S. action is not imminent.
"We'll probably have to wait to see what he (Hussein) does next," he added.
Military tension has been quietly building since the Iraqi jet, a Soviet-made MIG fighter, was shot down Dec. 27 in the first air battle since the no-fly zone was established by the United Nations last August and U.S., British and French fighters began air patrols to enforce the ban.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in an interview with a small group of reporters Monday, said that Iraqi jets have made no bold incursions into the zone since the incident.
But Cheney and other U.S. officials involved in Operation Southern Watch said that Iraqi fighters have been playing cat-and-mouse, flying up to the 32nd Parallel and often just over it to test U.S. reaction.
Such tactics are consistent with Hussein's behavior in recent months. Since the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi dictator has tested the limits of U.N. resolutions intended to protect Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south and has toyed with the access and authority of U.N. inspectors responsible for checking on Iraq's weapons abilities.
American officials released a list last week of 57 incidents of Iraqi harassment of U.N. humanitarian and other programs.
In the latest move, Iraq has transported Soviet-made SA-2 and SA-3 missiles south of the 32nd Parallel, where they supplement other surface-to-air missiles that have remained in the area since the no-fly zone was established.
Iraq was warned at the time the zone was created that allied jet fighters patrolling the airspace would regard any Iraqi attempt to "lock on" ground radar--used to guide the missiles to their targets--as a hostile act and would respond aggressively.
Some military sources said that the additional weapons mean Iraq now has a "marked increase" in its capabilities in the south. "The order of battle has changed," said one ranking official.
"Is it a bluff (by Hussein)? I don't know," the official said. "The guy's capable of anything, but I don't know whether he bluffs that well. Common sense tells you it's a dumb move since it invites a response."
Other officials, however, added that since similar missiles have been positioned within the no-fly zone for many months, the significance of the action appears to be more political than military.
"It's just all part of a pattern, and it's only when you put it all together that these movements become a concern," the official said. "None of this is militarily significant; it's more of a statement that they are still operators and are not complying nicely with the U.N. resolutions."
One American defense official noted that "we have a pretty good handle" on the locations and capabilities of the missiles.
U.S. officials have speculated in recent weeks that Hussein may try to embarrass President Bush in his final weeks in office or that he may try to test President-elect Bill Clinton, who takes office Jan. 20.
Cheney, who met with Clinton's Defense Secretary-designate Les Aspin last week, warned Monday that Hussein would be making "a big mistake" if he misjudged Clinton's resolve.
The United States and its allies have stepped up the frequency of their air patrols of the zone in response to the incident in which the Iraqi jet was downed.
But he said that as long as the missiles are operational, "they're probably more of a threat to their own planes than they are to ours," given the crudeness of Iraq's surviving command and control system.
The United Nations declared the no-fly zone over a 6,000-square mile area to keep the Iraqi military from violent repression of Shiites, who have been fighting against Hussein since March, 1991. Iraqi helicopters and aircraft played a deadly role in that campaign.
Although Iraqi aircraft occasionally had ventured into the zone, none of the crossings led to military hostilities until Dec. 27. On that day, two flights of Iraqi jets ventured well inside the zone about 40 minutes apart.
On the second flight, two Iraqi fighters were intercepted by a pair of U.S. F-16s, which issued a verbal warning. One Iraqi jet turned to confront the U.S. warplanes and was shot down about 20 miles inside the zone, the Pentagon said.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story.