Washington, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says the United States intends to keep the pressure on Iraq's President Saddam Hussein following an attempt by Baghdad to shoot down an American reconnaissance aircraft.
Bush spoke at the White House yesterday (26 July) following reports that Iraq's military earlier this week fired a surface-to-air missile at a high-altitude U-2 plane. The aircraft was not hit.
Defense Department spokesman David Gai said the plane was flying as part of joint U.S.-British air patrols over southern Iraq's so-called "no-fly zone."
Bush said he is still analyzing the data. He said the no-fly zone strategy remains in effect. The U.S. president said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Iraqi situation during their summit in Genoa, Italy, last week.
"No question that Saddam Hussein is still a menace and a problem. And the United States and our allies must put the pressure on him. That's why I brought up to Mr. Putin in Genoa the need for us to work in concert at the United Nations to make sure that we have a sanction policy that will work."
Iraq, which considers the no-fly zones illegitimate, frequently fires antiaircraft guns and missiles at the U.S. and British planes that patrol the zones, triggering retaliatory strikes directed at Iraqi air defense installations.
Senior U.S. Defense Department officials said the missile just missed the unarmed, single-seat plane. One official who asked not to be identified said the close call was a surprise because the missile, believed to be a Russian-made SAM-2 modified with extra fuel, was apparently fired without the use of ground-based targeting radar.
At the State Department, spokesman Philip Reeker said the no-fly zone was an important element of U.S. strategy concerning Iraq.
"Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch continue to prevent the Baghdad regime from using air power to repress the Iraqi people, and make an important contribution to regional security by providing a deterrent against -- an early warning of Iraqi aggressions."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned before that U.S. and British pilots patrolling no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq faced increasing danger from attempts by Saddam Hussein's forces to down their first allied warplane in a decade of enforcing the zones since the 1991 Gulf War.
State Department's Reeker said today:
"Every precaution, of course, is taken to protect coalition pilots operating in the no-fly zone, and our actions, as I indicated earlier, are intended to ensure the safety not only of the pilots but also the Iraqi people in terms of continuing the operation there and maintaining the no-fly zone."
The Bush administration, meanwhile, is trying to reform UN sanctions on Iraq to make them less onerous on the Iraqi people. Attempts to institute the so-called "smart sanctions" directed against the military, have so far been frustrated by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council which can veto council resolutions.