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U.S. Readies Harsh Retaliation After Iraq Fires on Jets

Mideast: Pentagon sends stealth fighters to region, plans to put more B-52s in range. Defense secretary says Baghdad 'will very soon learn we are not playing games.'

September 12, 1996|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In preparation for what U.S. officials warned would be a "disproportionate" attack against Iraq, the Clinton administration dispatched stealth fighters to Kuwait on Wednesday after Iraqi forces fired a missile at two American warplanes earlier in the day.

The Pentagon--in a clear signal that more U.S. military action is likely--announced that it was sending eight F-117A stealth fighters to the region and planned to order two more B-52 bombers to fly to Britain's Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.

The flurry of activity came after an Iraqi SA-6 missile crew fired a radar-guided missile at two U.S. F-16s patrolling the northern "no-fly" zone Wednesday. The missile failed to hit its targets because the Iraqis turned the radar off quickly to escape retaliation. No U.S. aircraft were damaged.

The incident, while relatively low-key, spurred the administration into considering stronger military action. Earlier, some administration officials had hoped to limit U.S. strikes to the minimum necessary to keep Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in line.

But after Wednesday's confrontation, the administration found itself with little leeway politically. Defense Secretary William J. Perry vowed bluntly that any U.S. attack against Iraq now "will be disproportionate with the provocations which [were] made against us" in Wednesday's missile-firing at the U.S. F-16s.

"If Iraqi air defense crews are playing some kind of a game, they will very soon learn that we are not playing games," Perry told reporters. "We have both the ability and the resolve to protect our interests."

Iraq's defiance was obvious, and Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp intensified criticism of President Clinton's handling of the situation in Iraq.

U.S. officials said that Clinton, campaigning in the West, had not yet given final approval for military action, adding that no airstrikes are likely until the weekend because of the time needed to get the F-117As and B-52s in place.

Still, senior officials made clear that, if the United States does launch another strike at Iraq, it will go beyond merely targeting Iraq's air defenses, as it did in raids last week, and will also destroy strategic military targets such as command posts.

At a rally in Arizona, Clinton warned that "the determination of the United States to deal with the problem of Iraq should not be underestimated. We will do what we must to protect our people."

Two U.S. F-15E fighters searched the area after Wednesday's incident in northern Iraq but were unable to locate the Iraqi missile battery.

The preparations for a possible round of U.S. airstrikes came as the administration encountered increasing pressure at home over the refusal of Hussein to back down after last week's American missile attacks, choosing instead to defy the United States openly.

Besides the missile fired at the F-16s on Wednesday, an Iraqi MIG-25 jet and an Iraqi helicopter briefly penetrated the newly expanded "no-fly" zone that Clinton established last week over southern Iraq, retreating before encountering any U.S. warplanes.

Although both incidents were relatively minor, the Iraqi bravado put the administration on the defensive.

Kemp, campaigning in Augusta, Ga., stepped up GOP criticism of Clinton's handling of Iraq, saying the president is guilty of "vacillation" and "failure to clearly define the objectives."

Defense analysts said the decision to deploy F-117As is evidence that the administration may broaden its retaliation beyond the relatively modest missile strikes it launched last week.

Because they can escape detection by radar, the F-117A stealth fighters--first used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War--are especially useful for knocking out mobile Iraqi missile-launchers and strategic targets such as command posts and communications centers. The F-117A carries 2,000-pound bombs, each of which has twice the explosive power of one of the Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Iraqi targets by Navy warships last week. The B-52s--two of which already are in place at the Indian Ocean base--can carry long-range cruise missiles or huge payloads of conventional bombs.

The administration has been embroiled in a debate in the last few days over whether to continue using only minimal force in responding to Iraqi incursions or to lash back, as its critics have urged, and hurt Iraq more severely.

Top presidential advisors discussed several options Tuesday but made no decisions, pending more intelligence reports on how much Iraq is rebuilding missile sites hit in last week's U.S. raids.

Another reason for the delay was that Washington had to persuade its allies to permit the United States to use their air bases. Saudi Arabia, partly out of concerns about angering fundamentalist Muslims, has expressed reluctance to allow U.S. aircraft to take off from its bases en route to bombing missions.

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