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Bomb Now, Die Later
Transformers and switchyard materials at the Al Hartha power plant north of Basra. The effects reverberated to Baghdad.

U.S. war planners considered Iraqi electrical plants to be high priority targets because, "When you look at the leadership, the command and control system, the military forces," Gen. Buster Glosson, [Gen. Horner's deputy] would later say, "electricity is the backbone."

Destruction of electricity, nonetheless, proved devastating for the civilian population. Rubble didn't fall on people and firestorms never erupted, but the civilian life-support systems of air conditioning, refrigeration, and water purification were destroyed. Collateral damage had a new definition.

Video: First bomb hit on Al Hartha

Saddam Hussein's electrical network was more typical of industrialized countries than of the Third World. The grid, made up of a small number of targets — including the Doura, Rasheed and Sarafiya generating plants in Baghdad — was considered highly susceptible to precision bombing.

The Tomahawk missile, with its small warhead, was given the primary task of disabling the plants. Almost a third of all cruise missiles fired were aimed at electrical power.

U.N. officials tour the main generator buildings of the Al Hartha plant.

Planning focused on limiting long-term damage by attacking switchyards and transformers, but not generators. The theory was that the electrical grid would be easily restored after the war. Given the Bush administration's overall strategic goals and the belief by the Air Force that Saddam Hussein would be eliminated, this was regarded as a necessity.

The theory of clean war proved more difficult to achieve than articulate. On Jan.18, intelligence sources reported much of Baghdad no longer had electricity. Air crews and weather satellites observed central and southern Iraq were also blacked out. Despite these reports, there was skepticism among intelligence analysts in Washington about the success of the initial bombing strikes. Many were suspicious that Iraq had shut down some plants to avoid additional attacks.

Video: Second bomb hit on Al Hartha

As far as air-war planners were concerned, the fact the power was off was all that mattered. But intelligence analysts wanted proof of physical destruction. The result of this tension was the air planners were pressured to reattack many plants. And in those reattacks, the fog of war intruded: for many pilots did not receive word to avoid hitting the generators. An example of the devastation can be seen in the Al Hartha plant north of Basra, which came under repeated attack, and its generator halls were bombed.

Far more Iraqi civilians would die in 1991 of deprivations caused by the lack of electricity than from 43 days of bombing. Baghdad "is a city essentially unmarked, a body with its skin basically intact, with every main bone broken and with its joints and tendons cut ..." said a U.N. children's fund (UNICEF) worker in the capital immediately after the ceasefire. The grid was expertly hit, but precise or not, the Iraqi leaders never felt the debilitating effects. They had their own generators, they had their own food and wine.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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