- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

China is building a fiber-optic communications system for Iraq's new air-defense network that was targeted by U.S. and British bombing last week, Pentagon officials confirmed yesterday.

"The Chinese are in the process of helping to construct a fiber-optic connection network to better integrate the air-defense system of Iraq," said a senior defense official. "These are largely buried fiber-optic cables that would protect them from a variety of things like weather or coalition air attacks."

The Chinese fiber-optic program in Iraq, part of a new integrated air-defense network that was nearly finished before the raid Friday, was first reported by The Washington Post yesterday.

The air-defense network will greatly increase Iraq's ability to target and shoot down patrolling U.S. aircraft with anti-aircraft missiles, defense analysts said.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has offered a reward to any air-defense unit that succeeds in downing a U.S. or allied jet patrolling the two air-exclusion zones over northern and southern Iraq.

The officials said the bombing raid by some two dozen warplanes was conducted on a Muslim holiday to avoid killing people including Chinese military officials and civilians working on the fiber-optic network.

"We wanted to take out the system and hardware and not the people," the senior official said.

Pentagon officials said they do not know how long China has been helping build the air-defense network or whether the U.S. government has protested the apparent violation of U.N. sanctions on Iraq.

China's government has condemned the bombing raid, along with the Russian government.

The Chinese involvement in an Iraqi military program is raising questions among some U.S. officials about China's assistance to America's enemies. CIA Director George Tenet stated in Senate testimony last week that China is a leading supplier of weapons and missiles to rogue states, such as Iran, Libya and North Korea.

However, the Iraqi fiber-optics program is the first time China's involvement in selling arms to the Baghdad government was made public.

The damage caused by Friday's bombing of some 20 radar stations that are part of the new air-defense network is not clear and still being assessed, the officials said.

As of last week, satellite photographs and other reconnaissance data showed that seven targets described as command-and-control "nodes" or central points in the new integrated air-defense system were destroyed or severely damaged.

Because the radars vary in size, it has been difficult to tell which have been put out of action completely and which systems may be functioning fully or partially, the officials said.

China several years ago set up a nationwide system of fiber-optic communications lines through its territory. The fiber-optic system is able to handle larger volumes of communications and is more secure against electronic eavesdropping.

U.S. companies also have sold fiber-optic communications equipment to China, raising questions about whether U.S.-origin fiber-optic know-how was resold to Iraq as part of the air-defense network.

The sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf war prohibit sales of military goods to Iraq until it gives up all its weapons of mass destruction and certain missile programs.

The United Nations allowed Chinese companies to repair severe damage to Iraq's electrical-power-grid system from the Gulf war.

Arthur Waldron, a China specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Chinese help to the Iraqi air-defense system shows Beijing continues to align itself "with the most backward and repressive regimes in the world."

"We see an increasing pattern, in which the Chinese align themselves with states like North Korea, Iran, Syria and Iraq," Mr. Waldron said.

Mr. Waldron said China's communist dictatorship is the cause of Beijing's support to rogue states.

"The dictatorship needs external enemies and is exaggerating fears that foreigners are going to come in and subvert China," he said.

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