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Analysis: Increased Bombing by U.S. and British Military on Iraq

Morning Edition: September 17, 2002

Iraq War Plans



BOB EDWARDS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Iraq says it will allow weapons inspectors to return without conditions. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced Iraq's decision late yesterday in New York.

Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN (United Nations): (From yesterday) I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of the inspectors, without conditions, to continue their work and has also agreed that they are ready to start immediate discussions on the practical arrangements for the return of the inspectors to resume their work.

EDWARDS: Iraq's offer to allow the United Nations' weapons inspectors to return has put the focus back on diplomatic activity, but the Bush administration is dismissing the Iraqi offer as a tactical step, and preparations continue for a possible military confrontation. The US military, in recent weeks, has moved equipment and set up new facilities in areas around Iraq, and Pentagon officials disclosed yesterday that US aircraft have become more aggressive in their enforcement of the no-fly zones in Iraq. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

A week no longer goes by when US aircraft do not bomb somewhere in Iraq. They've been doing this off and on for a decade. US and British planes patrol these so-called no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq to make sure Iraqi aircraft don't attack civilian populations in those areas. And when US or British planes are fired on or even threatened, they shoot back. But lately the retaliatory strikes have gotten more aggressive. Rather than just going after the anti-aircraft guns and the radar systems that guide them, the US and British pilots have been systematically dismantling Iraq's basic air defense system.

At the Pentagon yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he ordered the new approach. Rumsfeld said US and British pilots were being shot at more frequently, so he decided it was time to get serious about taking out the Iraqis' air defense capabilities.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): We're there, implementing UN resolutions. It's not just the United States. It's the British. There are coalition forces involved. And the idea that our planes go out and get shot at with impunity bothers me.

Unidentified Reporter #1: Can you...

Unidentified Reporter #2: When did you guys change...

Sec. RUMSFELD: And I don't like it. I don't like it. And so what we are doing is we are attempting to, in an orderly way, arrange our response options in a way that we think--we hope--will be net harmful to their capabilities on the ground.

GJELTEN: When asked whether the new strike pattern might lay the groundwork for broader military action against Iraq, Rumsfeld said, `Well, it can't hurt.'

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, said, in his judgment, the US and British air strikes in Iraq have degraded Iraq's ability to defend itself against air strikes. In US war-fighting practice, taking out a country's air defense system is normally the first step in a military engagement.

John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, says he has noticed other recent US and British air raids in Iraq that look very much like war preparations.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): For instance, the big air strikes against the H-3 airfield, a big airfield complex at the western border of Iraq, would be precisely the sort of thing that you'd expect in anticipation of a special operations raid against that key airfield; the same thing with some of the other strikes that you've seen down around Basra that reportedly focused on anti-ship and cruise missiles that might be used to strike against the American fleet in the Persian Gulf.

GJELTEN: There have been other examples as well that suggest the US military is preparing for military action in Iraq. Headquarters staff from the US Central Command, which would direct a war in Iraq, are moving from their base in Tampa, Florida, to the gulf state of Qatar. Central Command officials say it's just an exercise, but they acknowledge it could be a rehearsal for a wartime shift.

Bush administration officials are also said to be asking Britain for permission to base some B-52 bombers at a British air base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. That would put the long-range fighters well within striking range of Iraq. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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