Allies hit Iraq with 'self-defense' strike
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military said a U.S.-led airstrike on Iraq Friday was "essentially a self-defense operation." The attack, in conjunction with British fighter aircraft, hit four targets south and one north of Baghdad, the first strike of its kind in nearly two years.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in Mexico for a day of meetings with President Vicente Fox, called the bombings "a routine mission to enforce the no-fly zone."
The missions to enforce the no-fly zones are "part of a strategy," Bush said, "and until that strategy is changed, if it is changed, we will continue to enforce them."
The operation, Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold said at a Pentagon news conference, was prompted by an "increased threat to our aircraft and our crew. It reached the point that it was obvious to our forces that they had to conduct the operation to safeguard those pilots and the aircraft. In fact (it was) essentially a self-defense measure," he said.
Newbold said the strike involved 24 aircraft that targeted five Iraqi targets that control radar that had increased their frequency and sophistication and threatened U.S. jets patrolling Iraqi air space.
All U.S. and British planes involved in the attack returned safely, Newbold said.
U.S. officials in Washington said the attack was launched at Iraqi air defense facilities because of an increasingly more sophisticated threat against allied planes patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, set up at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein condemned the attack and said it was evidence that the U.S. -- aligned with the "Zionist entity" Israel -- planned a larger attack "against the Arab nations and the Palestinians."
Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the recommendation to attack the Iraqi targets had been "working its way up the (military) chain of command for some time now."
"This was different," Quigley said explaining why Bush's order to attack was required in this instance. Because the attack was north of the 33rd parallel -- out of the no-fly zone -- the president's permission was needed to launch the strike, Quigley said.
The more sophisticated Iraqi radar stations were increasing Iraqi chances of shooting down U.S. or British aircraft which routinely patrol airspace in the region, the Pentagon said.
Bush ordered attack Thursday
Bush ordered the attack on Thursday, CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King reported.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the action was "a routine strike" to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq and protect U.S. personnel.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been monitoring the situation from his weekend retreat, CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour reported from London. At least six British aircraft took part in the attack, some based from bases in Kuwait, Amanpour said.
Allied attacks hit Iraqi air defenses almost daily inside both the southern no-fly zone and its northern counterpart, but Friday's attack struck at targets north of the 33rd parallel, the boundary of the no-fly zone south of Baghdad.
Iraq does not recognize the no-fly zones imposed by the allies, and has been actively, but unsuccessfully, trying to shoot down allied planes since December 1998.
U.S. and British planes attack targets
Pentagon officials said U.S. and British planes took part in the mission, which targeted several facilities of Iraq's integrated air defenses, including a pair of communications and command centers just outside Baghdad and radar facilities further south.
The aircraft, from land bases in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in the Persian Gulf, used so-called "stand-off" weapons that allowed the attack to originate from inside the no-fly zone.
"This is a completely appropriate action," Samuel Berger, former national security adviser to former President Clinton told CNN. "This has been done before ... where we believed when our planes were being threatened, we took action.
"We are patrolling the no-fly zone to protect the people of Iraq," Berger added, referring to Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein. "And in order to do that, we need to protect our planes."
Iraqis celebrating the end of the week in Baghdad were told at first that the air raid sirens were a test, but some 10 minutes later, anti-aircraft fire erupted to the south and west of the city and several large explosions were heard. Iraqi television changed from its regular programming to military music.
Television also aired an image of a wounded Iraqi soldier.
U.S. State Department officials met with members of the Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), including INC leader Ahmad Chalabi, after the attack was carried out.
The INC has been promised money to help with its efforts in Iraq, including a plan to broadcast anti-Hussein radio messages inside Iraq's border and to collect intelligence on Hussein and his military.
But the funding has been delayed while State Department officials review the proposals.
Bush, visiting with Fox at his ranch, was briefed on the attack by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Asked if he approved of the strike on Iraq, Fox said, "I do not have a position or statement at this time. That will be done through the Foreign Ministry in the future."
Next week U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to the Middle East and Persian Gulf. He was the top allied commander during the Persian Gulf war, and part of the trip is tied to the 10th anniversary of the end of that conflict.
CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, Correspondent Jane Arraf and CNN producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.
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