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U.S. Expands Aggressive Defense in Iraq

Military: Punishing airstrikes are first stage of war, analysts say. Meanwhile, White House continues effort to link Baghdad, Al Qaeda.

September 27, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — American and British warplanes pounded an airport and a radar facility Thursday at two sites in southern Iraq under a new Pentagon policy that paves the way for a possible war by going beyond purely defensive fire to launch devastating retaliatory strikes aimed at permanently disabling Iraq's air defenses.

The latest in an aggressive series of airstrikes in the southern "no-fly" zone came as the Bush administration made a concerted effort to link Al Qaeda terrorists with Iraq, offering new assertions that Al Qaeda prisoners said they were trained in Iraq to make chemical and biological weapons and had negotiated "safe haven" agreements with Saddam Hussein's government. The disclosures, based on recently declassified information, enhanced the philosophical basis for waging a war, while the pounding of air defenses would prepare the battlefield for the intensive bombing campaign that would probably signal its beginning.

President Bush has said he has not decided whether to pursue his policy of "regime change" in Iraq by ousting Hussein by force, and is waiting for congressional and United Nations resolutions, which he is seeking to authorize an armed overthrow. But in a larger sense, some military analysts said, the preparatory steps to battle have begun.

"Let's be frank about it: They're preparing the battlefield for the first stages of the invasion," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council aide now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We're in the first stages of the war."

U.S. and British forces in the southern no-fly zone have been cleared to strike targets other than those firing at them since 1998, a senior defense official said. Yet they appear not to have done so systematically until recently. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that he ordered a change within the past six months that broadened the targets pilots could strike because, he said, he was tired of having U.S. planes fired upon "with impunity."

The policy marks a sweeping change from the days when Turkish officials barred coalition planes from firing except in immediate self-defense, and then only at the weapon that had fired at them, said a defense official familiar with the no-fly zones.

The change in strategy has become increasingly evident. At 12:45 a.m. Thursday in Iraq, U.S. and British planes simultaneously dropped precision-guided bombs near Al Kufah and Basra, 90 miles south and 275 miles southeast of Baghdad, respectively. Four planes pounded each of the sites, which included a radar facility and an airport used by both civilians and the military. The strike at the airport was in a remote part of the military side of the airfield, with no civilians nearby, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon briefing.

Planes patrolling an area dominated by Shiite Muslims in a large swath of southern Iraq have struck four times this month and 29 times this year. Aircraft in a smaller northern region designed to protect Iraqi Kurds have struck 10 times, according to Pentagon figures. The zones were set up by Britain and the United States after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and are not related to the United Nations weapons inspection program. U.S. military officials said Iraq has fired surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery at coalition planes 140 times this year. Iraq does not recognize the no-fly zones.

Meanwhile, a chorus of voices in the Bush administration offered new, and strikingly similar, accounts of Al Qaeda ties with Iraq.

First, Rumsfeld told reporters in Warsaw on Wednesday, without elaborating, that U.S. intelligence confirmed ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Asked about his comment, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" that "high-ranking detainees" from the war in Afghanistan had reported that the Iraqi government trained Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development.

Then the president weighed in.

"The danger is that they will work in concert," Bush said at a White House meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "The danger is that Al Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam Hussein and his hatred and his capacity to expand weapons of mass destruction."

Finally, Rumsfeld elaborated in a Pentagon briefing Thursday, saying Al Qaeda members were operating in Baghdad and had discussed "safe haven" status as part of talks on possible "mutual non-aggression" pacts with Hussein.

The disclosures are unusual because they include information based on a single source and some in which Rumsfeld said he did not have "high confidence."

"It's clearly a case of the administration constantly looking for the most malevolent interpretation of whatever uncertain data they have on this connection," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

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