By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Western planes conducted an air strike on Tuesday on a surface-to-air missile site in southern Iraq to knock out a radar that provides information for missile firing, the Pentagon said.
"All aircraft exited the area safely," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The strike, the second in less than a week, was conducted at about 8:15 a.m. EDT at an-Nasiriyah, about 170 miles southeast of Baghdad, he said.
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets used precision-guided munitions in the strike. Such weapons include missiles and bombs that are guided to precise aiming points using satellites. A damage assessment of the target was underway.
"This radar was an element of the Iraqi air defense that has been directly contributing to the effectiveness of their integrated air defense systems," Whitman said.
U.S. Central Command said the strike was conducted "in response to recent Iraqi hostile threats against coalition aircraft monitoring the southern no-fly zone."
Since the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. and British planes have regularly patrolled "no-fly" zones in southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon has said the Iraqi military has become more aggressive recently in trying to shoot down western planes.
On Friday, dozens of U.S. and British warplanes struck three air defense sites in southern Iraq with bombs and missiles. Earlier last week, allied planes struck Iraqi targets in the northern zone.
"If Iraq were to cease its threatening actions, coalition strikes would cease as well," a statement from U.S. Central Command said.
The coalition raids have targeted Baghdad's increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft network.
While no western warplanes have been shot down by Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently Iraq was improving its air defenses "both quantitatively and qualitatively" with fiber-optic communications cabling.
A fiber-optic air defense control center is located near an-Numaniyah, southeast of Baghdad, while the radar and anti-aircraft missile bases are farther southeast, near an-Nasiriyah, U.S. defense officials have said.
Pentagon officials said last month the Iraqi military came close to hitting a high-altitude U.S. U-2 spy plane with a missile on July 24.
Baghdad has denied firing at the plane, saying U.S. officials wanted a pretext for a military attack on Iraq.
U.S. and British warplanes have patrolled no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq since the Gulf War, when Iraqi troops were ousted from Kuwait by a U.S.-led coalition.
Iraq was banned from using all aircraft in the zones set up by Western powers to protect minority Kurds and Shiites.
"History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or timid." D. Eisenhower