U.S. Strikes at Iraqi Targets
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A01
President Clinton yesterday launched the largest military operation of his two terms in office, pairing U.S. and British forces against Iraq in what he called a "strong, sustained" attack from the air against the sources of President Saddam Hussein's military power.
The resort to war came on the eve of a scheduled impeachment vote that put Clinton's presidency at risk. Congressional leaders put off a floor debate on four articles of impeachment whose momentum toward passage looked all but unstoppable. Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.), expressed strong doubts about Clinton's motives for reprising an air campaign he first launched and then called off a month ago.
Warplanes aboard the USS Enterprise combined with more than 200 cruise missiles from eight Navy warships to converge on Iraqi targets at 5:06 p.m. EST (1:06 a.m. Baghdad time). At 4:49 p.m., live television broadcasts from Baghdad showed the blossoming of Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery in the night sky. Heavy explosions sounded, and orange balls of flame appeared on the horizon in video shot from the downtown Rasheed Hotel.
Less than an hour into the night's attack, which would arrive in waves lasting 4 1/2 hours, a visibly strained Clinton explained his decision in an internationally televised broadcast.
"Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons," Clinton said, adding: "Instead of the [U.N. weapons] inspectors disarming Saddam, Saddam has disarmed the inspectors. This situation presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere."
Administration officials disclosed few details about the attacks, which they said were aimed at Iraq's military command and control, air defenses and weapons production facilities. The assault put an end to 14 months of cat-and-mouse with Iraq in which Clinton three times pulled back from the brink of war -- in November 1997 and again in February and November of this year. Planners said they expected the bombing to last for three to five days and to be prolonged and strengthened if Iraq responded militarily.
Early in the evening, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said, "There have been no American casualties at this time. We are not in a position to calculate any casualties on the Iraqi side."
As morning broke over Baghdad today, the Iraqi government said that one hospital in the capital had reported five people dead and 30 wounded as a result of the attack. Reporters conducted through the city by government guides were shown streets strewn with debris and a hospital ward with patients suffering from burns and shrapnel wounds.
The hurried launch came less than 24 hours after United Nations arms inspectors reported a pattern of Iraqi obstruction and obfuscation that prevented them from doing their disarmament work. Intelligence sources said it caught Iraqi forces off guard, belatedly grasping their peril and just beginning a 24-to-48-hour process of scattering "high-value targets" from fixed positions.
"Traditionally they move SAMS [surface-to-air missiles], they take armored vehicles and move out of garrisons and disperse them within or just outside their facilities, at airfields instead of long straight lines of aircraft they'll disperse them, they try to move to fiber-optic and courier communications," said one administration official. "They didn't start until the UNSCOM inspectors left the country this morning."
"We think we have achieved as much tactical surprise as one can do under the circumstances," Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing last night.
The president and his Cabinet advisers, in separate appearances, emphasized the twin objectives first aired in February, when the United States and Britain came close to launching airstrikes. "We want to degrade Saddam Hussein's ability to make and to use weapons of mass destruction. We want to diminish his ability to wage war against his neighbors," Cohen said. He added: "And we want to demonstrate the consequences of flouting international obligations."
Spokesmen refused to be drawn on any connection between the military targets and Clinton's declared objective of bringing down Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Clinton gave another rhetorical boost to that aim, saying the Iraqi leader threatens "the security of the world" and "the best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government," a goal to which he pledged "time and effort."
The national security establishment has been divided since 1991 on whether military strikes help or harm the prospects of a coup against Saddam Hussein. Yesterday a defense official said the consensus now is leaning toward the view that the chaos and and damage wrought by bombing gives motive and opportunity to plotters against Saddam Hussein.
"Certainly when you put that kind of heavy outside pressure on the regime, after eight years of sanctions, there may be a weariness and a decision within Iraq, among the elite, that it's time to take a chance and try their luck in overthrowing him," the official said. "From a strictly military point of view, airstrikes will probably not remove the regime but it might assist them."
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein took steps aimed apparently at cementing his grip, dividing the country into four military regions and appointing a trusted commander in each with blanket powers over internal security. Iraqi television interrupted afternoon broadcasts to play patriotic music and display footage of soldiers training with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Our great people and our brave armed forces . . . resist and fight them," Saddam Hussein said in a text released before dawn in Baghdad and expected to be played in his own voice on Iraqi state radio. "Fight the enemies of God, the Arab nation and humanity. God willing, you will be the victors."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government joined the operation, dubbed Desert Fox, "with real regret, but also with real determination. We have exhausted all other avenues."
To guard against Iraqi counterattack and preserve an overwhelming military advantage, Cohen said he is "ordering a sharp increase in our forces in the gulf," including a brigade of ground troops and an air expeditionary force of 36 fighters, bombers and anti-air defense warplanes.
Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said planning for yesterday's attack began Nov. 15, after Clinton aborted an air campaign with only minutes to spare. Shelton, who said the planning was premised on the likelihood of a negative report around now from UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler, added that this week appeared from the start as the likeliest occasion to act.
"And so militarily, it was the right decision, the right date, and that decision was made back in November," Shelton said.
Two officials said previous leaks about the need to wait until after Ramadan ends, in January, were part of an effort to deceive Iraq.
Clinton, who gave the order to execute aboard Air Force One during his return from Israel on Tuesday night, consulted for a final time at 1 p.m. yesterday with his Cabinet-rank foreign policy advisers. The point of no return for the decision to attack passed at 3:12 p.m., when the most distant of the shipborne cruise missiles burst free from their launchers and ignited rockets for a flight of one hour and 54 minutes to target.
For the fourth time in little over a year, as he contemplated the use of force in Iraq, a central focus for Clinton was the certainty of innocent casualties in Iraq, according to advisers. No casualty estimates were available last night, but authoritative military sources said last month that the "medium option" in the November air plan projected 10,000 Iraqi dead -- the majority of them combatants. "While our strikes are focused on Iraq's military capabilities, there will be unintended Iraqi casualties," Clinton said last night.
Clinton said one reason he decided to move now was the imminent arrival of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, expected Sunday. He said that "to initiate military action during Ramadan would be profoundly offensive to the Muslim world." Several officials speaking afterward said that does not mean the United States cannot continue hostilities already under way.
"There is no artificial deadline," Berger said. Asked whether the air campaign could press on past the weekend, he replied: "I would not rule that out." Cohen said that "we intend to carry the mission out until such time as we accomplish our set goals."
When he called off the attack a month ago, Clinton said one reason was that bombing would probably mean the end of UNSCOM's work in Iraq.
Yesterday, however, Berger said "the fact is that UNSCOM has been ineffective for some time," adding: "To have a Potemkin UNSCOM in Iraq doesn't make much sense."
Though some senior Republicans declared their backing for the strike, key congressional leaders raised questions about the timing or argued openly that Clinton sought only to stave off his own removal from office.
"While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," Lott said in a prepared statement. "Both the timing and the policy are subject to question."
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), though stopping short of accusing Clinton of manufacturing a crisis, said "the suspicion some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment. After months of lies, the president has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons."
Cohen, the lone Republican in Clinton's Cabinet, took the lead on addressing that charge.
"I am prepared to place 30 years of public service on the line to say the only factor that was important in this decision is what is in the American people's best interests," he said. "There were no other factors."
Clinton, in his televised address, touched only indirectly on the controversy: "Saddam Hussein and the other enemies of peace may have thought that the serious debate currently before the House of Representatives would distract Americans or weaken our resolve to face him down. But once more, the United States has proven that although we are never eager to use force, when we must act in America's vital interests, we will do so."
Former president George Bush, who led the nation to war in 1991 to reverse Iraq's conquest of Kuwait, said Vice President Gore had briefed him on the attack and he would give it his full support "as long as one American military airman, seaman or soldier is in harm's way."
International reaction was divided along largely predictable lines, with denunciations from China and Russia and broad expressions of support from Japan and Germany. France, which has been among the strongest supporters of a more conciliatory policy toward Iraq, was notably muted in its public statements.
"This is a sad day for the United Nations and the world," said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. "Throughout this year, I have done everything in my power to ensure peaceful compliance with Security Council resolutions, and so to avert the use of force. . . . I deeply regret that today these efforts have proved insufficient."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, describing "a moment of grave determination" by the administration, replied that "we have decided to use force because other means simply have not worked."
At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov led what one participant in the Security Council deliberations called a "line by line attack" on Butler's report, accusing the Australian diplomat to his face of lying. UNSCOM's chairman, he said, had reported much more optimistically about his progress in Moscow a week ago. "Either he didn't speak the truth then or he's not speaking the truth now," Lavrov said, according to another participant.
Rushing out of the closed meeting, Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasan charged that "there is absolutely no excuse or pretext to use force against Iraq."
Among the factors complicating the military strike was a typhoon heading for the southeast coast of Oman.
The storm, designated 08A by the Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Guam, is expected to make landfall near the locus of intense air activity about 11 a.m. EST today.
Staff writers John M. Goshko, Bradley Graham, John F. Harris, Thomas W. Lippman and Dana Priest contributed to this report.
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