A Major Escalation?

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fires rifle to start military parade in Baghdad, Sun. Dec. 31, 2000 261335 AP

The crew of an AWACS radar plane orbiting over Saudi Arabia has reported seeing an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile fired into Saudi airspace, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

U.S. intelligence has yet to confirm the crew's visual sighting of the missile, which was 200 miles away, but firing into Saudi airspace would mark a major escalation in the air war between the U.S. and Iraq.

The AWACS, with its crew of 25, is a fat target, which is why it operates well back from the Iraqi border. The plane was never in danger but even an unsuccessful attempt would mark the first time the Iraqis have actually fired on an AWACS and would mean they have moved anti-aircraft missiles right down to the border with Saudi Arabia.

Saddam Hussein is clearly becoming more aggressive in his attempts to shoot down an American aircraft. The Pentagon is drawing up plans for a major strike against Iraq's air defense network, but officials are concerned such a strike could end up hurting the U.S. more than Iraq.

"There would be tremendous resentment, in part because there's a lot of frustration with U.S. foreign policy at the moment. It's all tied to the Palestinian question," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert.

In the Arab world, the United States is seen as partly responsible for the continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

"They believe Israel is to blame and they believe the U.S. is not stopping it," Telhami said.

Israeli strikes against Palestinians make it harder to launch U.S. strikes against Iraq.

"The frustration on the Palestinian issue is translated into sympathy toward Iraq in part as a way of defying the U.S.," explained Telhami.


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Meanwhile, Iraq said its anti-aircraft defenses fired at Western planes patrolling the southern "no-fly" zone Monday. The Iraqi New Agency said the incident took place at 9:40 a.m. local time (1:40 a.m. EDT) and involved planes flying from Saudi Arabia. It did not report any casualties.

It was unclear if the jets involved were American or British. Three other recent incidents have all involved U.S. aircraft.

Two Iraqi warplanes Thursday flew 40 miles into the southern no-fly zone in an apparent attempt to shoot down an unmanned American reconnaissance drone, but the Iraqi planes retreated without firing a shot.

In an incident Wednesday, the Pentagon said Iraq fired a missile at a U-2 surveillance plane. Iraq denied it.

Earlier this month, a Navy Hawkeye radar plane orbiting over Kuwait reported seeing a missile fired at it.

The incidents have stoked tension between Washington and Baghdad.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said Sunday Saddam was on the U.S. "radar scope" and that the Bush administration would use military force aginst Baghdad in a "more resolute manner" than in the past. President Bush, reacting to the U-2 incident last week, said it proved Saddam was "still a menace."

Baghdad replied by saying it was capable of achieving a "final victory" over the United States.

In the end, the U.S. will do what it has to do to protect its pilots patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq. Losing just one plane would be a disaster for the U.S. policy of containing Saddam. But launching the kind of strike it takes to protect those pilots could turn out to be a set back for that very same policy.

A leading Iraqi newspaper said Iraq could defeat any U.S. attack. "The Iraqis … now have the capability, power and will to contain any new aggression and foil its aims," the ruling Baath party newspaper al-Thawra said.

Indeed, the U-2 incident signaled that Iraqis have modified some of their missiles, adding extra fuel to extend their range. And the moves against surveillance planes suggest a new strategy on Iraq's part: targeting the higher-flying spy planes rather than nimbler combat jets.

After so many years of patrolling, U.S. aircraft have inevitably fallen into an operating pattern that the Iraqis can try to anticipate, launching unguided missiles at where they think an American plane should be.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi troops were ousted from Kuwait by a U.S.-led coalition, Iraq has been banned from using all aircraft, including helicopters, in the zones set up by Western powers to protect minority Kurds and Shi'ites from attack by Saddam's forces.

Last February the U.S. hit a network of air defense radar and command centers on the outskirts of Baghdad. The strike was unpopular with America's Arab allies and was not very effective, since many of the precision guided weapons missed their targets. Iraq has already rebuilt most of the network.



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