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U.S. Planes Hit Iraqi Targets After Coming Under Attack

In America, debate continues whether the shooting by Baghdad should trigger war.

November 16, 2002|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. aircraft and Iraqi ground forces exchanged fire Friday south of Baghdad while American officials continued debating among themselves and with U.N. diplomats whether such incidents reach the threshold for going to war with Iraq.

The Pentagon said U.S. aircraft dropped precision-guided bombs on Iraqi air defense and communications facilities near An Najaf, about 85 miles south of Baghdad, at 10:50 p.m., in response to antiaircraft artillery fire and Iraq's launching of surface-to-air missiles at allied aircraft patrolling the area.

The incident is similar to hundreds involving U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the "no-fly" zones of northern and southern Iraq for the past 11 years. But Friday's exchange carried added significance because some U.S. officials maintain that the U.N. Security Council resolution toughening arms inspections in Iraq had also lowered the bar for initiating military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But military officials suggested that the Bush administration was taking a low-key view of the incident.

"It has no effect on the U.N. resolution; this happens all the time," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which directs U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

And a Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the administration was considering the incident the same as other Iraqi violations of its obligations under a variety of U.N. agreements over the past decade.

"People want to see this as a trigger for war. That's not what's going on," the official said.

U.S. officials had said that U.N. Resolution 1441 contained no "hidden triggers" that would be used to launch war with Iraq.

However, some officials on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon have since argued that Iraqi potshots in the no-fly zones are sufficient violations to lead the administration to ask the U.N. Security Council to declare Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution. Such a declaration would be a prelude to military action.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Thursday that the United States would look with "great seriousness" on Iraqi hostile acts aimed at U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the zones.

Friday's exchange of fire was the first since Iraq said Wednesday that it would allow U.N. inspectors to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and facilities in which such weapons of mass destruction could be produced.

The no-fly zones were established after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to protect Kurds living in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south.

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Times staff writer John Hendren contributed to this report.

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