The commander of U.S. air forces in the Persian Gulf said Saturday that several months of intensified U.S. airstrikes had hit all known fixed air defenses in southern Iraq. But he added that mobile antiaircraft guns and missiles remained a threat to U.S. pilots.
"We've killed what we know is there," Air Force Lt. Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley said. "But they have a lot of depth in mobile systems that they can continue to roll into the south. The mobile systems are the ones I worry about the most."
The arrival of hundreds of additional Air Force and Navy carrier-based aircraft in the region in the past two months has enabled the United States to more than double the number of sorties over southern Iraq. This in turn has led to wider and more frequent coverage of the southern "no-fly" zone, Moseley said.
In Tampa, the military's Central Command said that its aircraft struck Iraqi positions early Saturday morning in the desert about 230 miles west of Baghdad, a remote area near the Jordanian border. The strike, like an attack in the same region the day before, was aimed at a mobile radar system used to track aircraft and to aim antiaircraft missiles.
More than 400 U.S. planes are now operating from about 30 locations in the gulf and elsewhere, according to other officials. In the past month, U.S. pilots have struck from seven to 14 targets in Iraq a week.
As commander of the 9th Air Force and the air component commander for the U.S. Central Command, Moseley would direct the air campaign in a war against Iraq. His remarks in a telephone interview were intended to portray the intensification of U.S. airstrikes against Iraq as still essentially an enforcement action prompted by a rise in Iraqi attacks in violation of U.N. resolutions.
But the increasingly aggressive U.S. targeting in the southern and northern no-fly zones established a decade ago, which are not recognized by Iraq or the U.N., has been widely seen as reflecting an American plan for the systematic destruction of Iraqi air defenses and, more recently, surface-to-surface missiles in a fashion that will ease the way for an invasion. The surge in sorties, which now number in the hundreds daily, and reached a record 1,000 one day last week, has transformed what was once a limited patrolling operation into a broader, more intense prelude to possible full scale war.
Also . . .
NAVY BEER BASH: Sailors and air crews aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf traded the roar of jet engines for the noise of punk rock guitars Saturday at an on-deck party, including two cans of beer each, thrown as a reward for 45 continuous days at sea.
HUMAN SHIELDS: Nine Lebanese departed Saturday for Baghdad, where they plan to serve as "human shields" against a potential U.S.-led war with Iraq.
"I am seeking martyrdom in defense of Iraq," said Sheik Saaddine Ghaya, a 35-year-old Sunni Muslim cleric from north Lebanon.