U.S. seeks reason that missile strayed in strike on Iraq; Air Force weapon hit Iraqi residential area, causing civilian casualties


WASHINGTON -- An upgraded 1-ton Air Force missile -- fired for the first time two weeks ago in Iraq -- missed its target Monday and struck a residential neighborhood outside Basra, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

While the Pentagon is trying to determine whether mechanical or human error caused the AGM-130 to slam into the al-Jumhuriya neighborhood and cause civilian casualties, the Air Force will continue using the missile during its patrols of the "no-fly" zones, officials said.

Three U.S. jets fired at military targets in the northern no-fly zone again yesterday, hitting missile, artillery and radar sites after being threatened by surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft fire, the Pentagon said. One of the Air Force F-15Es fired an AGM-130 at a radar site.

"We have analyzed yesterday's reports and found that an AGM-130 did miss its target and exploded several kilometers from its target," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. "It created some damage and we realize that. We regret any civilian casualties."

The Iraqis said several errant U.S. missiles killed 11 civilians and wounded 59 in two residential neighborhoods outside Basra during the morning raids by Air Force and Navy jets, which targeted surface-to-air missile sites, radar and communications facilities in the southern "no-fly" zone.

But Bacon said the Defense Department had no independent confirmation of casualty figures and said it believed that a single missile struck one of the neighborhoods near the port city in southern Iraq.

U.N. officials are expected to be in the Basra area today and would be the first to provide independent, official verification of damage and casualties in the residential area, according to a United Nations spokesman in New York.

Calling the nearly 13-foot AGM-130 "a missile that has fired well," Bacon said it would continue to be used by Air Force F-15Es during no-fly missions. Both the Air Force and officials at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., whose area of responsibility includes the Persian Gulf region, are trying to determine what went wrong, Bacon said.

Deployed in 1994, the AGM-130 was used for the first time on Jan. 11 -- during combat missions in the northern no-fly zone, said Pentagon officials. The $300,000 missile with front and rear wings offers various improvements from an earlier version.

It allows the aircrew to fire at a target from much farther distances -- although the exact distance is kept secret. The weapons officer can either lock onto a target or manually steer the missile toward its destination. A monitor in the cockpit reflects images from a camera on the missile head.

Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf region, has said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is ultimately responsible for any casualties due to his targeting of allied aircraft and continued defiance of U.N. resolutions.

Zinni also has said Hussein has been moving his air defenses closer to civilian and commercial areas, though Bacon said such actions appeared to play no role in the missile hitting the al-Jumhuriya neighborhood.

In the Arab world, the civilian deaths are likely to deepen sympathy for the Iraqi people, diplomats said. "The reactions in the street will not be good," said an Arab diplomat in Washington whose government is friendly toward the United States.

Mutual hostility between Saddam Hussein and his fellow Arab leaders has been increasingly public in the weeks since the mid-December U.S. missile attacks.

This is unlikely to be affected by the civilian casualties, but governments will have to be alert to popular sympathy for Iraqis, diplomats said. Many Arabs feel there is a double standard in the way Iraq and other countries that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions are treated. Mark Matthews of The Sun's national staff contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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