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Iraq: Bush Orders Strike As Warning

Washington, 19 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is warning Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that the United States will take appropriate action if he develops weapons of mass destruction.

The warning came Friday in the wake of U.S. and British warplanes striking five Iraqi air defense sites near Baghdad.

Speaking in Mexico during his first foreign trip as president, Bush called the air strikes a routine mission conducted to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq. He said the operation was requested by the U.S. military and that he authorized it.

The no-fly zones have been enforced since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. They are aimed at preventing Saddam Hussein's helicopter gunships from attacking civilians who are seen as potential opponents to the Baghdad regime.

"We are going to watch very carefully as to whether or not he (Saddam Hussein) develops weapons of mass destruction and if we catch him doing so we'll take the appropriate action."

Although described as routine, U.S. defense officials said the attack on Friday night was larger than other such allied attacks against Iraqi targets over the past several years. They were also the first such strikes in the vicinity of Baghdad in more than two years.

Bush described the operation this way:

"A routine mission was conducted to enforce the no-fly zone. And it is a mission about which I was informed and I authorized. But I repeat: it's a routine mission."

The president pledged:

"We will enforce the no-fly zone, both south and north."

U.S. defense officials said the mission was meant to destroy radar systems that had been threatening American and British aircraft.

They said the coalition aircraft never left the southern no-fly zone -- however, the targets were outside the restricted area.

Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold told reporters in Washington that the strike involved 24 allied aircraft targeting Iraqi command sites that control radar systems.

"The military operation was conducted because the Iraqi air defenses have been increasing both their frequency and the sophistication of their operations."

In Baghdad, Iraq's state television said there were a number of civilian casualties as a result of the raid. The claim could not be independently confirmed. Iraq blamed the bombing on what it called a "Zionist plot."