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U.S. planes bomb Iraqi rocket launcher

By Jamie McIntyre
CNN Military Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States on Tuesday bombed an Iraqi multiple rocket launcher in northern Iraq in what Pentagon officials said was an immediate response to a provocation.

Pentagon sources say the Iraqi rocket launcher fired three surface-to-air missiles at U.S. planes patrolling the northern no-fly zone imposed by the Western coalition, and a U.S. Air Force F-16 dropped two laser-guided bombs at the launcher in response.

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The bomb damage has not been completely assessed, but a Pentagon official said it is believed the bombs hit the target, which is north of the Iraqi town of Mosul.

There was no immediate response from Baghdad.

The Pentagon said it was the first strike against Iraqi air defenses since July 17, when U.S. planes bombed an air defense site in the southern no-fly zone.

The last time U.S. planes bombed in the northern no-fly zone was June 14.

Pentagon sources told CNN that the United States has "put on hold" plans for large-scale retaliatory air strikes because of concern that the negative reaction from U.S. allies in the region is not worth the limited effect the bombing would have on Iraqi air defenses.

Sources said the United States is back to its usual policy of striking smaller targets that threaten coalition planes on an "as needed" basis, and say Tuesday's strike is an example of that.

Meanwhile, military sources said Monday that Iraq continues to violate the no-fly zones.

Sources said on Saturday that an Iraqi MiG-23 flew some 60 miles into the southern no-fly zone, near where a U.S. predator unmanned aerial vehicle was conducting surveillance.

The Iraqi jet left the no-fly zone before U.S. planes could respond.

The United States has also returned to its normal military posture of having one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. briefly had two carriers last week in the Gulf when the USS Enterprise arrived to relieve the USS Constellation, but the Constellation left Saturday.

On June 26, a statement from the U.S. Central Command said there have been "more than 900 separate incidents of Iraqi surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery fire directed at coalition aircraft since December 1998, including more than 275 in this calendar year."

Northern and southern no-fly zones were put in place over Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War as part of an effort to prevent the Baghdad government of President Saddam Hussein from persecuting the minority Shiite Muslims in the south and the Kurdish population in northern Iraq.

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