WASHINGTON – The United States declared air supremacy over all of Iraq on Tuesday, asserting its warplanes can fly anywhere with impunity, even though an Air Force attack plane was shot down near Baghdad.
Until now the Pentagon had said it owned the skies over all of Iraq except in the Baghdad area and over Tikrit, the hometown of President Saddam Hussein, where air defenses were the strongest.
"Coalition air forces have established air supremacy over the entire country, which means the enemy is incapable of effective interference with coalition air operations," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, told a news conference.
He did not mention that an Air Force A-10 warplane was shot down near Baghdad on Tuesday. It is believed to be the first allied aircraft other than a helicopter to be downed by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile since the war began March 20. U.S. Central Command officials said the pilot ejected safely, was recovered by allied ground forces and was in good condition.
Pentagon officials said the A-10 appeared to have been hit by a French-made Roland missile, usually fired from a truck.
The military also announced Tuesday that a U.S. F-15E strike fighter had been missing in Iraq since Sunday. The two airmen aboard the plane, which was based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, remain missing, a Central Command statement said. The cause of the incident was unknown, the statement said.
Iraq began the war with formidable air defenses in the Baghdad and Tikrit areas, which had not been damaged by years of American and British airstrikes in "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq. Iraq's offensive air forces are weak, and not a single Iraqi aircraft has taken off to challenge allied planes.
The Pentagon announced, meanwhile, that the U.S. death toll from the war in Iraq rose to 96. Eight Americans are missing, and seven are being held as prisoners of war, according to U.S. figures.
McChrystal said allied aircraft are focusing on supporting American ground forces in and around Baghdad, attacking remnants of Iraq's Republican Guard and striking "time-sensitive" targets like the Baghdad building where U.S. intelligence believed a meeting was under way involving Saddam and at least one son.
McChrystal would not say Saddam was the target of that B-1B bomber strike Monday. He described the attack as "very, very effective" and said the enormous hole punched into the ground by four one-ton bombs was "where we wanted it to be." He would not describe the target.
The Air Force officer in charge of the bomb drop from the B1-B, Lt. Col. Fred Swan, said in a telephone interview with Pentagon reporters Tuesday, after he and his crew returned to their Persian Gulf air base, that they launched four 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs -- two of a type that penetrates into buried structures before detonating and two nonpenetrating types.
Swan said the crew was not told what the target was, but he was certain they had hit it.
Eliminating Saddam would be militarily significant, McChrystal said, even if it did not cause the immediate collapse of Iraqi resistance.
"He still controls elements of the Special Republican Guard and death squads," he said. "And his role as military commander and dictator, moral leader of that regime, he and a group of others, probably militarily are key" factors, to the extent they can exert influence.
"We'd like to reduce that," he said.
As U.S. ground forces expand their presence in Baghdad, a site of particular interest to U.S. officials is the military prison at Rasheed Air Base, which Marines took control of Tuesday. Pieces of Army uniforms possibly belonging to two U.S. prisoners of war were found at the prison. Seven U.S. soldiers are POWs and officials are seeking to determine their location.
The Pentagon says it is holding more than 7,000 Iraqi POWs.
Pentagon officials say U.S. ground forces have encircled Baghdad, although they have said little publicly about action in the north end of the city. A Dallas Morning News photographer was with an armored task force of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division on Tuesday in north Baghdad inside a Republican Guard barracks, which the troops destroyed.
Most U.S. ground operations in Baghdad over the past several days have been in the daytime, a military official said, to drive home the point that American troops can go where they want, when they want. Slowing at night allows them to pull back to more secure locations and get a night's sleep while coalition air forces continue to pound Iraqi forces, the official said.
Asked about a U.S. Army tank attack on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, in which two journalists were killed, McChrystal said it was an act of self-defense by the U.S. soldiers, who reported they had come under fire from the hotel.
"They had the inherent right of self-defense," McChrystal said. "When they are fired at, they have not only the right to respond, they have the obligation to respond to protect the soldiers with them and to accomplish the mission at large."
Separately, a Jordanian correspondent for the Arab television network al-Jazeera was killed Tuesday when a U.S. bomb landed on the network's Baghdad office.
Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said she had cautioned American and other news organizations since before the outbreak of war that Baghdad would be dangerous.
"We've had conversations over the last couple of days, news organizations eager to get their people unilaterally into Baghdad," she said. "We are saying it is not a safe place; you should not be there."