In Search of a Lost Cruise Missile

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Two Turkish soldiers examine a Tomahawk missile which fell a few hundred meters away from a group of houses in Buyukmerdes, southern Turkey. At least three U.S. cruise missiles have fallen on the Turkish territory within a week

A Tomahawk cruise missile is not easy to lose. The very reason the U.S. military is willing to spend $750,000 a piece on the precision-guided munitions is precisely that they go exactly where they?re told. But in the past week, three U.S. Tomahawks have gone missing in the rocky plains of southeastern Turkey en route to Iraq, several hundred miles from the war zone. Five more went astray in Saudi Arabia, and a handful of others have broken up in Iran and, reportedly, Syria.

Last week Time set out to find the latest arrival. It had roared out of the sky the previous night, and we had been told about it by a local primary school teacher, who lived upstairs from a policeman. He telephoned a friend in the southeastern capital of Diyarbakir with the news, and three hours later, we were driving along a raised dirt road between green fields and barren volcanic outcrops not far from the Syrian border.

Kurdish women in headscarves and heavy layered clothing emerged from mud huts when they saw our taxi approaching. They pointed into the distance to show where they had heard a strange object had fallen from the sky. One, her a sequined nightgown glinting in the sun, indicated a place just beyond a sandy hillock a few miles distant; another said it was closer to the water tower. By the time we reached the site, we were not the first to arrive.

A small crowd of farmers in khalifas, curious children, and Turkish soldiers had gathered around four car-sized chunks of green-and-white metal. The missile had crashed to the earth and broken up about 100 yards short of the tiny village of Buyukmerdesi.

Turkish soldiers combed the fields for debris and warned us to stay away from the unexploded warhead . It was, they said, "very dangerous." We could see the letters "USA" painted on the missile tip. "Oosah," a young girl in a green headscarf sounded them out. "Oosah." The villagers were worried. "They are coming from the left, they are coming from the right. They are attacking us!" said Mahmut Kaya, a farmer who was woken from a deep sleep by the deafening roar. He fingered his prayer beads.

A Pentagon spokesman says such miscues are rare. More than 700 Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles (T-LAMs) have been launched at Iraq from ships in the Red and Mediterranean Seas and the Persian Gulf, and only a handful have gone off course, he said. "No weapons systems is foolproof." Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for Operations for the U.S. military's Joint Staff, was asked about the missing warheads at a Pentagon briefing. "They don't explode," he said. "The warheads do not explode."

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, nevertheless, have lodged formal complaints with the Pentagon, which has agreed to suspend launchings over the most populated areas. The problem is, barren southeastern Turkey is about as unpopulated an area as you get in this part of the world. There, in villages like Buyukmerdesi (pop.200), farmers are developing a different view of things.

Pausing from their work in the waning light, farmers spoke quietly of American intentions. "How could it be a mistake?" said one. "Three missiles in five days? Bush wants to hit all the Muslim areas." Others questioned why Israel had not been hit. "They will start here and then go to Istanbul."

Many Turks are convinced that Washington is deliberately singling out their country for reprisals because of its refusal to grant permission for U.S. troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil. "Hopefully Saddam will destroy Bush and he will go back to the USA " said Abit, 36. Such anger is the exception. Turks are not reflexively anti-American and radical Islam has been kept at bay by an authoritarian secular government. But when a small team of U.S. military analysts arrived to inspect the fallen missile parts a day after we left, they were pelted with eggs and rocks. Turkish police called to the scene quickly cleared the protestors away. The good news is that unlike in Iraq no one has yet been killed.