WASHINGTON – U.S. planes bombed a ballistic missile launcher in southern Iraq on Tuesday, Pentagon officials said, in the first operation against Iraqi weapons that are meant to hit ground targets instead of aircraft or ships.
Eight American warplanes dropped a total of 16 bombs on the Iraqi missile system near Basra at about 11 a.m. EST, Pentagon officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A statement from U.S. Central Command said the Iraqis had moved the mobile missile-launching system into the southern no-fly zone.
"Saddam Hussein put these systems in range of our troops and the people of Kuwait, and under U.N. authority, we struck them," said Jim Wilkinson, a Central Command spokesman.
The U.S. bombs struck an Iraqi Ababil-100 missile launcher, a command van and resupply vehicles, senior defense officials said.
The Ababil is a solid-fueled missile developed after the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq says it does not fly farther than the 93-mile limit on Iraqi missiles imposed by United Nations sanctions. The United States and Britain say the Ababil probably either has a longer range or could easily be modified to fly farther. U.S. officials say the Ababil also can be used to carry chemical or biological warheads.
Even under the U.N. limit, an Ababil missile fired from Basra could easily reach Kuwait, where thousands of U.S. troops are massing in preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq.
U.S. warplanes also attacked a mobile surface-to-air missile system near Basra on Monday. Iraq claimed that strike killed two civilians. American military officials say they go to great lengths to avoid hitting civilians and say Iraq often lies about civilian casualties.
Tuesday was the 15th day this year that U.S. or coalition forces have struck at targets inside Iraq's two no-fly zones. The airstrikes are meant to retaliate against Iraqi attempts to shoot down coalition warplanes and to soften up Iraqi defenses before a possible invasion.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is about 245 miles southeast of Baghdad in the southern no-fly zone set up by the United States to protect Iraq's Shiite Muslims.
Iraq considers the zones over northern and southern Iraq to be violations of its sovereignty and repeatedly tries to shoot down the U.S. and British warplanes patrolling them. Iraq has not succeeded in downing a piloted plane over either zone.
The United States also has dropped millions of leaflets in the southern no-fly zone, warning soldiers not to repair damaged facilities and telling Iraqis how to tune in to American military propaganda radio broadcasts.