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Strike on Saddam Said to Be Foiled
By Storm

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 1991; Page A01

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Allied intelligence officials believed they had pinpointed the whereabouts of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein one night last week and warplanes were dispatched to the site, but the storm front that blew across central Iraq prevented bombers from striking there, according to a senior U.S. government official.

"We didn't get to cross the target," the official said, using military parlance for reaching the point of attack.

The scrubbed bombing mission was part of a broader effort to "decapitate" Iraq's armed forces by severing the links between echelons of command.

Bush administration officials have freely described strikes at Baghdad's instruments of command and control as part of the overall effort to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But they have been reluctant to confirm that Saddam -- Iraq's military commander in chief as well as its head of government -- is personally a target. Administration and congressional officials attribute that reluctance to doubts about the prospects for success, fears of a political backlash and disagreements over the legality of targeting any one man in time of war.

The capacity of top Iraqi commanders to receive "real time" information and maintain operational control over their forces has been a top-priority target from the first day of combat. Officials said specific targets include the bunkers shielding top commanders, the radars and other means of "seeing" the enemy and communications equipment ranging from buried fiber optic cables and microwave dishes to telephone switching stations and radio antennas.

In practice, officials acknowledge, those targets include most of the places where Saddam is likely to be. But last week's mission, details of which could not be learned, is the only one known in which Saddam was actually thought to be present at the time and place of an intended attack.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, using identical language, have consistently denied that allied bombers are "targeting any individual."

Command and control cannot be completely destroyed, officials said, because communications networks are redundant and orders can always be transmitted somehow, if only by couriers on foot.

"In extremes," said Lt. Gen. James Ahmann, a retired Air Force commander, "they can send somebody out to say, 'Hey guys, launch two Scuds against Dhahran in four hours.' "

Attacks on command and control, according to a Pentagon official, aim primarily to "drive him into means {of communication} that are easier to detect, so you can jam them or listen to him, whichever you want to do."

Another objective is to deprive top Iraqi commanders of "real-time" intelligence, or up-to-the-second information about the course of battle. It does little good for air defense commanders, for example, to learn hours or even minutes after the fact that U.S. warplanes have staged a raid on an Iraqi position.

Command and control is a target in any war, but U.S. analysts said it is particularly vital against Iraq. Built on a centralized Soviet model, the analysts said, Iraq's lines of communication and authority tend to run directly to the top. Whereas U.S. commanders are taught to take initiative in the absence of orders from superiors, Iraqi forces are thought to fight poorly in any unit smaller than a division.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to suggest in a briefing for reporters last week that practical difficulties were the principal reason for "not targetting {Saddam} per se." Referring to embarrassing delays in the December 1989 hunt for Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, Powell said he had "learned from previous experience how difficult it can be to track a head of state in whom you might be interested."

U.S. officials said a Central Intelligence Agency task force has coordinated an intensive effort to identify and locate Saddam's electronic "fingerprints," or the characteristic patterns of movement and communication that accompany his travel around Iraq. The effort has succeeded only intermittently.

"His movements are one of the most closely guarded secrets in peacetime," said Anthony Cordesmann, an aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and an authority on the Iraqi military. "They do not become easier to find in war."

Saddam, according to officials, travels primarily at night, and uses hired lookalikes as decoys, complete with caravans of official vehicles and armed guards. Some officials said Saddam has moved to populated residential areas as a refuge against allied attack.

Most Iraqi command centers, officials said, are deep underground in bunkers linked by buried communication cables. Iraq has shown resourcefulness, they said, in restoring links that were damaged in the first waves of bombing.

"You blow up an antenna, and two or three days later they build another," a Pentagon official said.

Because Saddam announced before war began that he had assumed personal command of his army, and because Iraqi television footage shows him wearing the uniform of a field marshal, several international lawyers interviewed yesterday said he has made himself a legitimate target. There is some dispute, however, whether a 1981 executive order banning "assassination" applies to the targeting of specific enemy commanders during wartime.

On April 17, 1943, U.S. Naval intelligence notified American forces on Guadalcanal island that Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet, would be flying to the island of Bougainville the following day. Navy Secretary Frank Knox messaged field commanders that "President attaches extreme importance" to downing Yamamoto's plane. Eighteen P-38 Lightnings ambushed the plane and destroyed it.

"I think it would be perfectly permissible for us to go after" Saddam, said Robert F. Turner, chairman of the American Bar Association's standing committee on law and national security.

In a speech Wednesday evening, Bush said "no one should weep for this tyrant when he is brought to justice." A sampling of interviews on Capitol Hill suggested there would be considerable support for the president if Saddam were to die in the course of a U.S. bombing.

"If Saddam is there," said Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), "that is the ultimate command and control center."

Staff writers David Hoffman, George Lardner Jr., Molly Moore and R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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