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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 02:05 GMT 03:05 UK
Iraq 'nearly downs' US spy plane
U2 spy plane
U2 spy plane was 'close to' being shot down
By Nick Bryant in Washington

The Iraqi military has come close to shooting down a US spy plane patrolling the no-fly zone in the south of the country.

The incident happened on Tuesday, according to Pentagon officials, who fear that the Iraqis may have improved their ability to strike at unarmed reconnaissance planes.

Map of no-fly zone
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has been warning for some time now that American and British pilots face an increased danger from Iraqi defences.

The unarmed U2 spy planes soar through the skies at over 21, 000 metres (70,000 feet) - well out of range of most surface-to-air missile systems.

But officials at the Pentagon now believe the Iraqis have improved their defences, adding extra fuel to their Russian-made missiles to increase their range.

Shock waves

The American pilot was patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq when he saw the missile streaking towards him.

It exploded below and behind him, sending shock waves through the plane but failing to damage it.

Scud missile launcher
The US fears that Iraq has improved its missile capability
Saddam Hussein has long sought to bring down a Western aircraft, and this latest incident could mark a significant shift in tactics, with his forces taking aim at slow-moving reconnaissance planes rather than fast-moving jets.

Already this year, US and British war planes have launched bombing raids on Iraqi missile sites, and further incidents like this one could easily prompt further action from Washington.

See also:

21 Jul 01 | Middle East
Iraqi missile 'fired at US plane'
17 Feb 01 | Middle East
Iraq defiant over missile attack
19 Apr 01 | Middle East
Iraq 'shoots down Iranian spy plane'
03 Jul 01 | Middle East
Iraq escapes 'smart sanctions'
02 Jul 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Iraq wins sanctions battle
29 Jun 01 | Middle East
Iraq outburst over UN sanctions
27 Jun 01 | Middle East
UN deadlock over Iraq sanctions
26 Jun 01 | Middle East
Russia resists new Iraq sanctions
27 Feb 01 | Middle East
Powell's new plans for Iraq
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