The 1996 cruise missile strikes on Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Strike, were joint United States Navy-Air Force strikes conducted on 3 September against air defense targets in southern Iraq, in response to an Iraqi offensive in the Kurdish Civil War.
On 31 August 1996, the Iraqi military launched its biggest offensive since 1991 against the city of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. This attack stoked American fears that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein intended to launch a genocidal campaign against the Kurds similar to the campaigns of 1988 and 1991. It also placed Saddam in clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 forbidding repression of Iraq's ethnic minorities.
The cruise missile strikes was initially planned to be by aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), including aircraft from Fighter Squadron 11 (VF-11) and Fighter Squadron 31 (VF-31), both operating F-14D Tomcats, Electronic Attack Squadron 139 (VAQ-139), operating EA-6B Prowlers, Attack Squadron 196 (VA-196), operating A-6E Intruders equipped with the Target Recognition and Attack Multi-Sensor (TRAM) system, Anti-Submarine Squadron 35 (VS-35) flying S-3B Vikings and Strike Fighter Squadron 113 (VFA-113) and Strike Fighter Squadron 25 (VFA-25), both operating F/A-18 Hornets. However, the strike instead was launched by U.S. Navy surface warships and U.S. Air Force bombers.
On 3 September 1996, a joint operation by the U.S. Navy's Carl Vinson Carrier Battle Group and U.S. Air Force, a combined strike team consisting of the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67), the guided-missile destroyer USS Laboon (DDG-58), and B-52 Stratofortress bombers escorted by F-14D Tomcat fighters from Carl Vinson, with the nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser USS California (CGN-36) serving as Air Warfare Commander, launched 27 cruise missiles against Iraqi air defense targets in southern Iraq. A second wave of 17 missiles was launched later that day from the destroyers USS Russell (DDG-59), USS Hewitt (DD-966), USS Laboon (DDG-58), and the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Jefferson City (SSN-759). The missiles hit targets in and around Kut, Iskandariyah, Nasiriyah, and Tallil.
The attacks were primarily aimed at retaliation for the targeting of USAF fighters in the Northern and Southern no-fly zones, and were targeted at surface-to-air missile sites and command, control, and communication locations, with the intention of degrading the Iraqi air defense infrastructure. These strikes, along with follow-on deployments of troops, aircraft, and the addition of a second aircraft carrier to the region, achieved their desired results.
It is debatable whether the attacks did or did not have a substantial effect on Iraq's northern campaign. Once they installed the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in control of Irbil, Iraqi troops withdrew from the Kurdish region back to their initial positions. The KDP drove the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from its other strongholds, and with additional Iraqi help, captured Sulaymaniyah. The PUK and its leader, Jalal Talabani, retreated to the Iranian border, and American forces evacuated 700 Iraqi National Congress personnel and 6,000 pro-Western Kurds out of northern Iraq.
In response to Iraq's moves, the United States and United Kingdom also expanded Operation Southern Watch and the southern Iraqi no-fly zones from the 32nd parallel to the 33rd parallel, bringing it to the edges of Baghdad itself.