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About 100 American and British aircraft took part in an attack on Iraq's major western air defence installation yesterday in the biggest single operation over the country for four years.
The raid appeared to be a prelude to the type of special forces operations that would have to begin weeks before a possible American-led war. It was launched two days before a war summit between President George W Bush and Tony Blair in America.
The Prime Minister promised that Britain would be alongside the Americans "when the shooting starts".
The raid seemed designed to destroy air defences to allow easy access for special forces helicopters to fly into Iraq via Jordan or Saudi Arabia to hunt down Scud missiles before a possible war within the next few months.
Although only 12 aircraft dropped precision-guided bombs on to the H3 airfield, 240 miles west of Baghdad and close to Jordan, many support aircraft took part.
The strikes were carried out by nine American F15 Strike Eagles and three RAF Tornado GR4 ground attack aircraft flying from Kuwait.
At least seven types of aircraft took part. Fighter cover was provided by US F-16 Fighting Falcons and RAF Tornado F3s from Saudi Arabia. RAF VC10 tanker aircraft flying from Bahrain were among the support aircraft.
These also included EA6b Prowlers, which send out signals to confuse enemy radar, and E3a Awacs aircraft that co-ordinate operations and carry out reconnaissance of any response.
RAF Tornados also took part in the reconnaissance. American central command refused to go into detail about the number of aircraft involved in the raid.
It said: "Coalition strikes in the no-fly zones are executed as a self-defence measure in response to Iraqi hostile threats and acts against coalition forces and their aircraft."
The Pentagon said that the raid was launched in "response to recent Iraqi hostile acts against coalition aircraft monitoring the southern no-fly zone".
Iraq had made 130 attempts to shoot down coalition aircraft this year.
The Ministry of Defence in London refused to confirm that RAF aircraft had taken part, but defence sources said that Tornado ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft played a key role. The attack on what the American central command described as an "air defence command and control facility" was the first time that a target in western Iraq had been attacked during the patrols of the southern no-fly zone.
Until yesterday, all strikes had been against air defence sites in the south, around Basra, Amara, Nassairya and Baghdad.
Central command said it was still assessing the damage caused by the attack. If the air defence installation was not destroyed, a second raid is expected.
As well as blinding Iraqi radar to any special forces helicopters, the loss of the H3 installation would allow allied aircraft mounting major raids on Iraq a trouble-free route into the country.
In a further sign that America was preparing for war, a Pentagon official confirmed that heavy armour, ammunition and other equipment had been moved to Kuwait from huge stores in Qatar.
Thomas White, the army secretary, said: "We have done a lot with pre-positioned stocks in the Gulf, making sure that they are in the right spot to support whatever the president wants to do."
Any war on Iraq is likely to begin with a gradual intensification of attacks on air defences. But yesterday's raid appears more likely to be related to the special forces Scud hunts.
It was the SAS which specialised in the attempts to hunt down the Scuds during the Gulf war. Although the raids were largely unsuccessful, they spawned a series of rival books by former members of the regiment.
Mr Bush, speaking in Louisville, Kentucky, said that, besides having talks with Mr Blair, he would be meeting the leaders of France, Russia, China and Canada over the next few days. He would tell them that "history has called us into action" to oust Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq.
He said he was looking forward to the talks, but suggested that the US could do the job on its own if need be.
"I am a patient man," he said. "I've got tools; we've got tools at our disposal. We cannot let the world's worst leaders blackmail, threaten, hold freedom-loving nations hostage with the world's worst weapons."
Copyright Daily Telegraph 2002, For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .
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