- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, March 23 (UPI) — The military command center for the U.S.-led war on Iraq flatly denied reports Sunday that either American soldiers had been taken prisoner in southern Iraq or that a coalition warplane had been shot down over Baghdad.

"Absolute denial," spokesman Ensign David Luckett rang out cheerfully by telephone from Doha, Qatar, the headquarters of the Combined Forces Command. "All our people are accounted for."

Iraqi and other Arab TV outlets showed video Sunday of a search for supposedly downed coalition pilots in the Tigris River in Baghdad, with Iraqi troops shooting into banks of reeds along the riverbank, after reports that a coalition warplane had been shot down and its pilots ejected.

The riverbank searches by Iraqi troops came as Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan claimed that the first captured coalition prisoners would shortly be paraded before Baghdad TV cameras.

Asserting that Iraq's military operations are "going on with a smooth and perfect way," Ramadan told reporters in Baghdad: "You will see today the U.S. prisoners of war and the U.S. tanks which have been destroyed before they (U.S. forces) pulled back."

A command center statement called the report of a downed aircraft untrue, adding, "Officers at the Combined Air Operations Center here verified as of 8:30 a.m. (EST) today all coalition aircraft were accounted for."

However, U.S. and British commanders Sunday did order a review of identification procedures after a Royal Air Force Tornado returning from a mission over Iraq was shot down near the Kuwait border, apparently by a Patriot missile in what may be the war's first "friendly fire" event.

"It looks that way," said Group Captain Al Lockwood, RAF spokesman when asked if the missing aircraft was the victim of coalition missile fire.

Outgoing and returning coalition pilots fly arranged routes, designed to avoid such friendly shoot-downs, and carry Identification Friend or Foe equipment which communicates with coalition anti-aircraft radars.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Leaf of the U.S. Air Force told reporters in Kuwait that confirmation of the incident would await an inquiry, but noted "combat is a dangerous environment."

"Overall, the operation is going more rapidly that I imagined it would," Leaf added.

With two Royal Navy helicopters colliding Saturday with the loss of all aboard and other British casualties on a crashed U.S. helicopter Friday, the coalition air forces are taking significant casualties in a war that has so far seen 6,000 sorties flown by a total of 1,600 allied aircraft from 30 bases in different countries.

From the bombing of strategic sites in Baghdad to close air support missions for allied ground troops, reconnaissance and in-flight refueling, troop insertion and re-supply, the air forces are working at high pitch. They are flying missions from bases as far-flung as Whiteman Air Force Base in the central United States — a 35-hour operation — to B-52 flights from RAF bases in Britain and in the Diego Garcia island base in the Indian Ocean, each 16-hour flights.

This is a far more sophisticated air campaign than the one waged in the first Gulf War in 1991. In that conflict, some 8 percent of the munitions delivered were "smart" weapons, guided by lasers or other precise guidance means to give a near guarantee of hitting the target. This week, more than 90 percent of the munitions delivered have been "smart" weapons, mainly conventional bombs fitted with $20,000 Ground Position Satellite kits that hit an intended target through clouds, smoke or fire.

(Ghassan al-Kadi, in Baghdad, contributed to this report.)

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