WASHINGTON -- Hours after American warplanes fired missiles at Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries, an administration official said that the pilots had been mistaken in thinking that the Iraqis were preparing to shoot.
That official said that the crew in a similar incident Sunday also thought they were being shot at.
Military officials insisted that two Navy EA-6B jets were justified in attacking radar in separate incidents at two anti-aircraft sites yesterday in the southern no-flight zone. One incident occurred just north of Tallil air base and the other southeast of Tallil. Under rules of engagement, American pilots patrolling the zone, from which Iraqi aircraft are banned, are permitted to retaliate when they believe they are threatened.
But an administration official familiar with classified intelligence reports of the incidents said that the Navy pilots were new to the region and mistook Iraqi surveillance radar for a much more threatening radar that tracks a target just before firing a missile.
Moreover, the official said that a missile attack Sunday by an Air Force F-4G jet on another site in southern Iraq was triggered by radar that Iraqi forces were aiming at Shiite militia members in a ground skirmish, not at the American warplane.
When asked about these accounts, a Defense Department official said it was too early to tell about yesterday's incident, but acknowledged that the missile firing Sunday appeared to have been prompted by a ground surveillance radar. "But the radar's signature as measured by the F-4G crew's radar was virtually the same as the SAM [surface-to-air missile] radar," the official said.
Defense Department officials, however, have made no effort to correct the information it provided Sunday.
The new intelligence reports and analyses raise questions about the Pentagon's earlier assertion that Iraq had provoked the latest incidents.