WASHINGTON (AP) -- By firing a surface-to-air missile at an American U-2 spy plane over southern Iraq, President Saddam Hussein's government has signaled a significant change in its targeting strategy against patrolling U.S. and British planes, officials said.
The high-flying U.S. plane was not hit, but the missile flew so close Wednesday that the plane's pilot felt the reverberations from the explosion.
The intelligence plane was flying as part of Operation Southern Watch, a joint U.S. and British operation patrolling "no-fly" zones over Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Lt. David Gai said.
The operation, in place since the Gulf War ended in 1991, is designed to protect Kurdish and Shiite groups from government forces. Iraq disputes the legitimacy of the flight-interdiction operations and regularly contests U.S. and British patrols by firing missiles and artillery guns.
Less than a week ago, the crew of a Navy E2-C surveillance aircraft flying in Kuwaiti airspace reported seeing the plume of a surface-to-air missile fired from inside Iraq. That plane also was not hit in what has become almost a daily -- and potentially deadly -- game of cat-and-mouse between the two sides.
U.S. officials are interpreting the new attacks on U.S. surveillance aircraft as a significant shift in Iraq's tactics. Rather than take aim at patrolling warplanes, officials say the Iraqis are choosing now to go after the slower-moving monitoring craft. The high-performance fighter jets have continually evaded Iraqi missiles since the flight-interdiction operation began in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War.
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