Kuwait, March 23: The body count breaks out in Iraq and, shockingly for the coalition, in its rearguard in Kuwait. A soldier of the US’ crack 101 Airborne Division rolled three grenades into a tent where the force is camped in north Kuwait, killed a comrade and injured at least 13 others.
The Coalition Land Forces Component Command office here confirmed an incident had taken place at 1.30 on Saturday night. The soldier had been detained and investigations were on.
Not far from the tragedy in the US camp, a British Tornado Jet said to be returning from a mission in Iraq was shot by a US anti-missile battery with Patriots. Britain’s Royal Air Force Group Captain Jon Fynes confirmed the incident.
The British have lost 21 persons in “Operation Iraqi Freedom” so far. These include casualties when two Seaking helicopters collided before landing on a carrier in the Persian Gulf on Saturday and possibly also three journalists of a network.
There are at least two, possibly more, journalists embedded with the 101 Airborne Division in “Camp Pennsylvania”. Sky News correspondent Stuart Ramsay saw the soldier, an engineer, held by troops.
The 101 Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” is known to be the only exclusively air assault formation among the militaries of the world. Nearly 20,000 troops have been camping in North Kuwait since the second week of this month. The division has three battalions, nearly 270 Chinook helicopters and Apache Attack Helicopters. Special forces of other armies hold the 101 Airborne in high esteem for their ability to paradrop or move deep into enemy territory and break out through rings of fire.
| Press photographers follow an Iraqi Republican Guard firing in the Tigris river during a search for coalition aircrew believed to have been shot down over Baghdad on Sunday. (AFP)
Details on the shooting down of the Royal Air Force fighter were not immediately available. The fighter was definitely shot near the Kuwait-Iraq border and Patriot anti-missile batteries ring the area around defences to intercept Iraqi flying objects. But it is not known if it was in Iraqi airspace or Kuwaiti.
Airspace in Kuwait-Iraq is minutely “mapped” not only in the immediate preparation leading to the war but also because of “Operation Southern Watch”, which monitored the Iraqi Southern no-fly zone for over a decade. US and British fighters have regularly flown out of and flown into the Ali Al Salem and Ahmed Al Jaber airbases in Kuwait in thousands of sorties.
Since October last year, the number of sorties had grown rapidly as “Operation Southern Watch” also combined sorties to prepare the battleground by regularly degrading Iraqi defences south of the 33rd parallel. In the run-up to the war, squadrons and air assault units at these bases moved gear from “Operation Southern Watch” to “Operation 10-03 Victory”.
The shooting of a coalition aircraft by its own forces is a disaster when seen in this background.
A Tornado is a ground attack aircraft with a crew of two.
British forces spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood expressed his regrets and added: “In the end, we have to get on with the job. It has been tragic and there is a great deal of sorrow for those concerned and their families and friends.”
But the sympathy and reassurance will be cold comfort to either US or British forces fighting in Iraq or the families and friends of the missing airmen.
Government ministers and senior officers pledged to improve the systems designed to prevent misidentification of targets in the heat of battle.
Warplanes have transponders that emit a special code identifying them as “friendly” when challenged by their own side.
British defence minister Geoff Hoon said he deeply regretted Sunday’s incident, but that no system was completely foolproof.
“Air, land and sea combat is very risky business. They will never be perfect,” US Air Force Major General Daniel P Leaf said. The USAF Major General is director, air component coordination of the coalition land forces.
“The Shock air forces since combat began 96 hours ago have targeted WMD sites, and targets for regime change.” He said about 120 low-lift aircraft were ready to fly humanitarian aid into Iraq.