CAIRO, Egypt – A U.S.-British air raid in southern Iraq this weekend destroyed a major military surveillance site that monitors American troops in the Persian Gulf, witnesses said Tuesday.
The Iraqi military said the allied warplanes on Sunday bombed areas in Basra province, 330 miles south of Baghdad, killing eight civilians and wounding nine others.
The U.S. Central Command in Florida said coalition aircraft used precision-guided weapons to strike two air defense radar systems near Basra "in response to recent Iraqi hostile acts against coalition aircraft monitoring the southern no-fly zotary surveillance unit.
Many Iraqis travel frequently to Jordan, which has strong trade and political ties with Iraq.
The site in Ashar, south of Basra, was hit by four missiles, which destroyed most of its buildings and left its equipment in shambles, a witness said on condition of anonymity.
He said he saw huge fire and black columns billowing from the buildings shortly after powerful explosions, which echoed in Basra, a major port city on the strategic Shatt Al Arab waterway.
Another witness said on condition of anonymity that troops and militia of the ruling Baath Party immediately cordoned off the area while ambulances and fire engines rushed inside the tightly guarded complex.
An Iraqi dissident in Amman, the Jordanian capital, said the site was recently equipped with advanced surveillance gear used to spy on U.S bases in the Persian Gulf and especially in Kuwait, where the United States is believed to have some 10,000 troops posted. The dissident, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was not among the witnesses.
The Iraqi report didn't provide any details about the raids or the casualties. U.S. officials have said they have no way of confirming or denying Iraqi claims of causalities but that coalition aircraft "never target civilian populations or infrastructure and go to painstaking lengths to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian facilities."
The attacks came as Washington weighs options to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Iraqi opposition leaders say they are discussing their role in any bid to oust Saddam.
U.S. and British warplanes monitoring "no fly" zones over southern and northern Iraq regularly attack Iraqi military facilities. The zones were established shortly after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Kurdish and Shiite Muslim groups.
Iraq, which considers the zones violations of its sovereignty, frequently tries to shoot down allied planes. The patrols give coalition pilots intelligence and practical experience that could be helpful should the United States decide to go to war against Saddam.