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U.S. Forces Staying on the Heels of Hussein

Military: Patrolling the 'no-fly' zones, Americans have kept an eye on the Iraqi leader and his tactics. But he has been watching as well.

October 09, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — After 12 years of trade sanctions and of Western fighter jets patrolling and bombing northern and southern Iraq, Saddam Hussein still has an integrated air defense system with radar, missiles and artillery that poses a daily threat to American pilots, U.S. military officials here say.

Although no one is claiming that those air defenses are especially sophisticated, or that the U.S. Air Force could not overwhelm them in the event of a full-scale war, their existence serves as a testament to Baghdad's disdain of terms imposed on it and to its determination to continue fighting. In the four years Iraq has been shooting at American warplanes, it has not hit one. But it keeps trying.

"They are always trying to shoot somebody down," said Capt. Pat Driscoll, an F-15 pilot who patrols the northern "no-fly" zone over Iraq and who flew in the southern zone last year. "It happens almost daily. Lately, it has been happening more frequently."

The United States, along with Britain and formerly France, has been patrolling the skies of northern and southern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with the stated goals of enforcing the no-fly zones and monitoring Baghdad's compliance with U.N. resolutions. Iraq rejects the patrols as a violation of its sovereignty and, since 1998, has been firing back. Hussein has even placed a bounty on the head of any American pilot.

Until recently, this has been a low-intensity conflict that has attracted little attention outside Iraq--although since 1998 alone, U.S. forces are said to have flown more than 30,000 sorties over the north, firing into Iraqi territory 171 times. But with Washington considering an invasion, and with the Air Force certain to shoulder the burden of an opening offensive, the lessons learned from Operation Northern Watch and its counterpart, Operation Southern Watch, are crucial to military planners. Incirlik in southern Turkey is the base for the northern operation.

"Probably the biggest thing we've learned is we've stayed in touch with our adversary," said Col. John "Buck" Burgess Jr., an F-16 pilot and commander of air operations at the base. "We watch his tactics. We know how he operates. That's as much a reason for being here as anything else."

But there is a flip side, Burgess acknowledged: Hussein's forces have had the same opportunity.

"He does the same to us, I have to say," Burgess said during an interview inside his steel-and-concrete-fortified command center. "He has gone to school on our operations. He has seen us for nearly 12 years. You have to know he is watching everything that we do."

Not only does Iraq change its tactics routinely--it does all it can to thwart any response by U.S. pilots. Military officials are careful not to reveal too much, saying they don't want Iraq to know all they have learned. But during a series of interviews over two days, they offered some examples of what American forces have experienced--and what they might expect in the event the U.S. moves ahead with plans for an invasion.

"He still has weapons systems," said Brig. Gen. Robin "Scottie" Scott, commander of Operation Northern Watch. "He has an integrated defense: surveillance radar with target tracking. It is sophisticated enough they are able to engage us whenever we are in the area."

The northern no-fly zone is relatively small, about the size of Maryland. Although much of it is controlled by the Kurds in a semiautonomous region, Hussein maintains a grip over a broad swath of territory that starts in the north near the border with Syria and extends south to the city of Mosul and then east beneath Kurdish-controlled Sulaymaniyah.

Iraq has complicated the ability of U.S. pilots to respond largely by placing its antiaircraft artillery batteries and surface-to-air missile sites near populated areas--a strategy that could also tie the Pentagon's hands in the event of an invasion.

Army Col. Steve West, chief of staff for Operation Northern Watch, said some of the heaviest concentrations of antiaircraft weapons in the north are around Mosul and near Ayn Sifni and Saddam Lake. But what is especially problematic, he said, is the precise location of any given weapon.

"It's next to a building; it's next to a mosque; it's next to a soccer field where kids are playing. We have a right to defend ourselves, [but] we are gravely concerned about collateral damage," West said.

With an increased number of passenger flights in the no-fly zone, which are allowed, there is some concern that Iraq will shoot down a passenger liner and then blame the U.S. to win a public relations victory, West added. He said the Air Force goes to great lengths to distinguish between military and passenger aircraft and noted that there has not been a violation of the no-fly zone in the north for more than a year.

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