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Iraqi ultralight flights raise fears of chemical, suicide attacks
By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times
CENTRAL IRAQ - At least two Iraqi ultralight aircraft have flown over U.S. Army positions here, raising fears that Iraq may use the single-pilot planes to drop chemical or biological weapons or launch suicide attacks.
The small, prop-driven planes evaded a tight air defense system before flying over an assembly area packed with helicopters, tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other military equipment. They flew off before anti-aircraft crews received permission to shoot them down.
The first ultralight was spotted about 3 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) Friday.
``My driver noticed an aircraft off to the east unlike any he'd ever seen before,'' said Staff Sgt. Billy Armstrong, who leads a squad of Linebackers - Bradley fighting vehicles mounted with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
Through his binoculars, Armstrong saw a tiny plane with a wingspan between 15 and 20 feet being steered by a pilot sitting under the wings with a small engine behind him.
The grayish-black ultralight was about two miles away and 900 feet above the ground, flying in a straight line ``as slow as a helicopter would,'' Armstrong said
Another ultralight was reported over a different part of the assembly area.
The possibility that ultralights could be used in suicide attacks seemed all the more real on Saturday after an apparent suicide bomber blew up a car at checkpoint north of An Najaf manned by soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division.
U.S. Central Command confirmed that four American soldiers were killed in the attack. It had no reports of any wounded.
Maj. Gen. Victor E. ``Gene'' Renuart Jr., Central Command's director of operations, called the bombing an act of terrorism.
``That kind of an activity is a symbol of an organization that is beginning to get a little bit desperate,'' he said.
The appearance of the ultralights caught the U.S. military by surprise. On Saturday, the day after the small planes were spotted, Renuart told reporters that the Iraqis have not been able to fly an airplane and ``have not shown any inclination to fly an airplane.''
At least one of the ultralights was in the targets of U.S. gunners, but it disappeared over the horizon as officers sought permission to shoot it down. Such permission is designed to protect coalition aircraft.
``A lot of it has to do with cluttered skies,'' said Capt. Ruel Smith, who commands C Battery, 1st Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment. ``There are a lot of friendly aircraft in these skies.''
Smith's battery is attached to the 3rd Division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment.
Crowded airspace may explain how the ultralights were able to fly over undetected, Smith said. U.S. soldiers watching radar screens would have a tough time distinguishing an Iraqi ultralight aircraft from a small U.S. Army helicopter, he said.
``It moves slow, and it has a prop, so it looks to us like a helicopter, and there's many, many, many helicopters here,'' Smith said.
Three Linebackers tried to follow the ultralights but could not find them. Two Apache helicopters also searched, Smith said.
Pilots flying Kiowa Warrior helicopters from the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division reported 30 minutes later they had spotted an ultralight 25 miles south, Smith said. But those helicopters did not give chase, for reasons Smith said he could not explain.
In December, about six ultralight planes were spotted flying over two U.S. military camps in Kuwait, according to Capt. Jeff Ryals, the cavalry regiment's intelligence officer. U.S. forces failed to shoot the aircraft down in that instance as well.
That ``was a test to see if they could violate our airspace without getting shot down,'' Ryals said.
Smith said he had been briefed on the threat posed by the small aircraft. ``We were told to expect a slightly different type of vehicle, which was a paraglider,'' he said.
A paraglider has a steerable parachute canopy while an ultralight has a stable framed wing, he said.
Officers have been told in briefings that the Iraqi regime tried to buy at least 100 ultralights from an overseas company. Intelligence reports indicate only about 50 have been delivered, according to Ryals.
He said Iraqis could use the ultralights to conduct reconnaissance of coalition positions or spread chemical or biological weapons. The planes also could be loaded with explosives and used in Kamikaze-style suicide attacks, he said.
The aircraft spotted Friday probably were flown by Iraqi special forces or by paramilitary pilots loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Ryals said.
``All the (Iraqi) special forces missions we've seen in the last 10 years have been strategic reconnaissance on motorcycles or infiltrators dressed as Bedouins,'' he said. ``So it would be a new tactic if special forces used these for strategic reconnaissance.''
Ryals said Friday's flights probably were designed to identify ``the sexiest targets to strike with surface-to-surface missiles.''
Smith said military officials are working on a way to identify ultralight tracks on radar screens. And air defense commanders now have authority to shoot down ultralights.
The dominance of U.S. air power in recent years has all but eliminated the threat to U.S. ground forces from enemy aircraft. Officers here said this could be the first time an enemy aircraft has flown over American ground forces since the Korean War.
In other developments:
- Apache helicopters from the 101st Airborne became the first elements of the storied unit to enter the war when they attacked Iraqi forces east of Karbala on Saturday. Two battalions of the helicopters - most flown by pilots with no combat experience - destroyed tanks and armored personnel careers. All the helicopters returned safely.
One pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Brett Halstead, 37, of Fort Worth, Texas, recalled blowing up an Iraqi communications network.
``It went up like a roman candle,'' he said.
- U.S. officers said they have been unable to confirm that Iraqis in Ash Shatrah had displayed the dead body of a missing Marine whose truck went off the road Saturday during an Iraqi attack. A helicopter crew found no sign of the missing Marine.
- U.S. forces continued to pound Republican Guard divisions from the air outside Baghdad as British forces struck irregulars in the southeastern city of Basra.
- Journalists traveling with military units were told to stop using satellite telephones that rely on the Thuraya satellite out of unspecified concerns that Iraqis could use signals from the phones to gather intelligence about American operations.
The Thuraya system is based in the United Arab Emirates and is Arab owned. Other satellite phones, including those in the American-owned Iridium system, are not a source of concern.
(Contributing: David J. Lynch and Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY)