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Allies attack 3 Iraqi air defense sites

From Jamie McIntyre and Major Garrett
Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. and British planes attacked three Iraqi air defense sites Friday, including part of a fiber-optic network that Iraq has been using to link its radars to track allied planes, Pentagon officials told CNN.

The targets included a "communications node" southeast of Baghdad, which is part of a fiber-optic network Iraq installed with Chinese technical assistance, according to Pentagon sources.

That target was also hit in the last major attack on Iraq on February 16, when U.S. and British planes bombed above the 33rd parallel near Baghdad, but it has been rebuilt, according to Pentagon sources.

Airstrike targets  

Friday's attack was on a smaller scale than February's and was confined within the southern no-fly zone, but it was still heavier than usual.

Some 20 strike aircraft, including U.S. Navy F-18s and F-14s from the U.S. carrier Enterprise, along with U.S. Air Force F-16s and British GR-1 Tornados based on land, attacked three targets at about 5 a.m. EDT, including the communications node in the northern part of the southern no-fly zone, as well as a radar and surface-to-air missile site farther south.

Including support aircraft, there were some 50 aircraft taking part in Friday's raid. All returned safely to their bases, according to Pentagon officials.

Designed to degrade Iraq's air defenses, the strikes come as a result of Baghdad's increasing aggressive efforts to shoot down a U.S. or British plane in recent months.

The strikes were ordered by the U.S. Central Commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks and did not require presidential approval because they were within the southern no-fly zone, according to Pentagon officials.

There was no immediate response from Iraq.

An administration official told CNN the mission "does not require presidential authority beforehand," but that President George W. Bush was nevertheless notified before the mission occurred.

The official said the mission was "intended to degrade Iraq's integrated air defense network."

"As we have said in the past," the official said. "We will take any steps we deem necessary to protect our pilots patrolling the no-fly zones."

An Iraqi surface-to-air missile nearly hit a U.S. U-2 surveillance plane July 24, exploding close enough to the plane that the pilot felt the shock wave.

On Wednesday, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told the coalition allies to get out of the region.

"If you care that your pilots and your aircraft are not harmed by the weapons of the high-spirited freedom fighters of great Iraq, then take your aircraft and battleships and go home," he said.

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