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Iraq’s recent complaint to the U.N.’s top weapons inspector about a U.S. proposal to send U-2 spy planes to Iraq could have been a ruse to suggest a weakened air defense system around Baghdad, one defense analyst has suggested.

“One might want to keep in mind military deception is probably playing a role here,” said Patrick Garrett, an associate analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense analysis group focusing on emerging security challenges.

What better way, he asked, for Iraq to down U.S. aircraft then by convincing the United States that its air defense system poses no threat?

“The truth is it’s quite the opposite,” Garrett said. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military appears to have a significant defense capability, the analyst said, particularly around Baghdad in central Iraq,“at least from looking at imagery of the emplacements for the surface-to-air launchers.”

Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that speculation on Iraq’s air defense system “is beyond what we can talk [about] out of this building.”

He said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has made the Predator and U-2 available to U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission inspectors.

“Other than the Iraqis showing a lack of cooperation, there’s not a whole lot more this building talks about,” he said. “We still stand ready to support that the offer still remains on the table.”

Earlier this month, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that the Iraqi government had written Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector, to complain of the U.S. offer of U-2 spy planes to help search for illicit weapons.

Iraqis told Blix they “have a real problem with U-2s flying over central Iraq,” the Associated Press reported. Iraqis complained U-2 flights would complicate their air defense forces’ mission of defending against U.S. and British fighter jets that periodically attack Iraqi military sites in the southern and northern no-fly zones, the AP reported.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Council for Foreign Relations in New York on Jan. 23 that Iraq “is blocking U-2 flights requested by the U.N., in direct violation of Resolution 1441, which states that inspectors shall have free and unrestricted use of manned and unmanned reconnaissance vehicles.”

Garrett also speculated Iraq was irked at the U.S. offer because of U-2s’ intelligence potential.

“Iraq does not want to give the U.S. the legal right to do overflights, so that it may gather intelligence on Iraqi locations that will most likely make their way to the U.S. CENTCOM’s target list,” he said of the MacDill Air Force Base headquartered U.S. Central Command.

However, defense analyst Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, pointed out that, although Baghdad may be well fortified with air defense sites, its system is old and antiquated.

“The system has not had a real modernization of a major component in 10 years; just about all of Iraq’s surface-to-air missiles date back to the 1973 Israeli-Arab War,” Cordesman said.

Iraq may protect its ground-based missile systems, Garrett said, by moving most of its SAMs out of their fixed positions; ground materials such as SAMs and tanks may be moved to hardened shelters to avoid initial airstrikes.

“It looks as if there could be a repeat of what we saw in Kosovo,” he said.

Garrett cautioned, however, that his observation is based on imagery from commercial sources “that is more than a month old.”

Since 1991, when the Gulf War ended, American and British fighters have patrolled U.S.-mandated no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. The stated reason for establishing the zones was to protect the region’s Kurds and Iraqi Shiites, minority groups threatened by Saddam’s forces.

In February 1999, coalition forces briefly resumed bombing Iraq to counter aggression by Iraqi air defense forces and wipe out a build-up of its air defenses.

The Pentagon confirmed then that Baghdad responded by placing a bounty on U.S. and coalition pilots.

Iraq has downed no allied pilots patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones but did down unmanned Predator drones, the Department of Defense confirmed.

“They can get lucky, and even unguided systems can sometimes shoot down aircraft,” Cordesman said. “You’re not exactly talking cutting-edge technology with the SAMs.”

“Keep in mind that it is not particularly difficult to make a SAM,” Garrett said. “You simply strap a missile system onto a dump truck and there you are.”

That is what Iraq has been sending to the desert in the no-fly zones, the analyst said.

But, Garrett added, Saddam’s forces also have been fortifying Baghdad with better equipment, “which leaves one to wonder if he’s sending the junk down there and keeping the high-quality stuff near Baghdad.”

Rumsfeld changed U.S. strategy for responding to these attacks. Now, it’s focused on systematically degrading Iraqi air defenses, according to news conference transcripts posted on the Pentagon Web site.

Cordesman said although much has been learned about Iraq’s electronic warfare capabilities and sensor suites during more than a decade of Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch missions, the United States may have done too little to protect its pilots against Iraq’s desert-based radar and missile sites.

“We have not reacted to improving our capabilities in these sort of ‘ordinary missions,’” he said. “It is a dense system, one that can’t be disregarded, and certainly is something that is going to be taken very seriously.”

Fighter aircraft from Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing, and the 18th Wing from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, now patrol the southern no-fly zones as part of Operation Southern Watch.

Iraq does not recognize the legality of the no-fly zones, first established by the United Nations in 1991 at the conclusion of Desert Storm, saying it considers the U.S. and British coalition fighter patrols a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

While the SAMs present a potential threat, Garrett said he thinks Iraqi forces will be conservative with use of the aging weapons.

“The real problem, though, may revolve around what we saw during Kosovo, that Iraqi SAMs won’t fire, or reveal their position, unless they feel they’ve got a good shot.”

Still, Cordesman predicted, the attrition rate for pilots rolling against the Iraqi air defenses “is not likely to be high.”

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