NEAR AS SAMAWAH, Iraq—Coalition soldiers operating in central Iraq have been instructed to search for Russian-made anti-tank missiles that Iraqi soldiers or guerrillas are suspected of using to damage two U.S. M1A1 tanks and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The subject of the search is the Kornet AT-14, an anti-tank missile system the Russians developed that is guided to its target by a laser beam and is capable of penetrating the super-heavy armor made of spent uranium that is used to protect M-1 tanks. It is mounted on a tripod and can be fired from more than 2 miles away.
One U.S. commander here said he had been told that finding one of the systems was "a national priority."
The disabling of the two tanks during fighting Monday near An Najaf was the first combat loss of an M1A1, which Army soldiers had come to think was all but indestructible. The crews escaped unharmed and it was unclear how seriously the three vehicles were damaged, but a Pentagon spokesman in Washington said the missile punched a distinctive hole in the tanks' heavy armor.
Finding a Kornet would have a number of benefits, officers here say. In addition to allowing U.S. officials to examine it for weaknesses, finding the system would prove that Iraq had violated a weapons embargo that the United Nations imposed in 1991. The Kornet was not developed until 1994.
It also could prove an embarrassment to the country that provided the weapons. Official reports on the missile say that in addition to the Russians, it has been deployed with the Syrian army, but an intelligence officer with the 3rd Infantry Division said the missiles also might have come from Ukraine.
Officers here said Iraq might have as many as 500 of the missiles. In 1998, a Russian newspaper reported that 1,000 Kornet missiles had been sold to Syria.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.