U.S. Steps Up Attack on Iraq
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A1
The attack by U.S. and British forces against Iraq broadened and intensified yesterday, as salvos of missiles pounded scores of targets throughout the country and the skies over the Iraqi capital filled with the flash of huge explosions, the smoke of distant conflagrations and the brilliant red tracings of antiaircraft fire.
The second wave of strikes by allied cruise missiles – by far the heaviest attack against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 – came as Washington continued to be roiled by the historic question of President Clinton's possible impeachment. The twin crises, each compelling enough to transfix the nation, overlapped and crescendoed throughout an extraordinary day.
Clinton dealt head-on with the suggestion that he had timed the attack to head off the drive in the House of Representatives to impeach him. "I don't think any serious person would believe that any president would do such a thing," he said, calling his decision to attack "the right thing for the country."
Republican leaders in the House, stung by criticism that their rush to question the timing of the attack had undercut traditional bipartisan backing for ongoing U.S. military action, eagerly supported a resolution that the body "unequivocally supports the men and women of our armed forces who are carrying out their missions." The resolution passed 417 to 5. But Republicans rejected Democratic entreaties to postpone today's impeachment debate until the operation was completed.
For the second night, strikes by allied cruise missiles came in successive waves over Baghdad, heralded by air-raid horns and punctuated by the wailing of emergency sirens. But as opposed to Wednesday, when only a few explosions were heard in the capital, last night more than a dozen missiles apparently landed in and around Baghdad, the nation's political, economic and cultural center.
The first day's attack involved 70 U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft operating from the carrier USS Enterprise; in last night's raids, land-based Air Force B-52s joined the fray and dominated the action. British Tornado aircraft based in Kuwait participated in last night's attacks, officials said.
Officials said the latest strikes included about 100 cruise missiles – about half as many as on Wednesday, but with 2,000-pound warheads that were twice as large as those used the first night. Among the targets of the raid were air fields, chemical plants, missile production and storage facilities, air defense systems and Iraq's surface-to-air missile sites, according to Pentagon officials.
In briefings yesterday, U.S. officials would scarcely discuss yesterday's attacks and declined to offer an overall assessment of the damage inflicted by Wednesday's raids. Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said data from Wednesday was still being evaluated. Some targets clearly had been destroyed, he said, while other strikes were "not as successful."
"There have been no American casualties, and we are achieving good coverage of our targets," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
There was no reliable tally of Iraqi casualties. One report said there had been about 25 deaths in Baghdad alone, but there were no reports from other parts of the country.
As some details of the operation were revealed, it emerged that the airstrikes were aimed at the apparatus that makes it possible for Iraq to produce, store, guard and control weapons of mass destruction – but also, not coincidentally, at crucial pillars of support for Saddam Hussein's regime.
The more than 50 targets of Wednesday night's opening salvo – during which more than 200 cruise missiles were launched – included, for example, Iraq's military intelligence headquarters and the important Abu Ghraib barracks housing troops of the Special Republican Guards. Both those installations were destroyed, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Iraqi military intelligence units were instrumental in tracking, and thwarting, the work of U.N. weapons inspectors, U.S. officials said – but they also provide key muscle and support for Saddam Hussein. The Special Republican Guards were used to protect and transport materials and records relating to Iraq's nonconventional weapons programs – but they also form Saddam Hussein's innermost circle of personal protection.
Shelton said he was not certain whether members of the special guards were inside the barracks at the time of the attack by several missiles, which came between 1 and 4 a.m. Baghdad time. Officials would not comment about whether there had been any Iraqi military resistance to the attacks.
He said Saddam Hussein himself had not been targeted and U.S. officials did not know where he was. "We have not been tracking Saddam Hussein by day, and Saddam Hussein was not the objective established for this operation," Shelton said.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf offered a very different view of Wednesday's missile attacks. He portrayed them as aimed at Saddam Hussein and members of his family, and at installations that either were innocent factories or that had already been extensively examined by U.N. inspectors and found to be harboring nothing sinister.
"They attacked with the cruise missile the house of President Saddam Hussein's daughter, Hala, and fortunately, she and her relatives were not at that moment in their house," Sahhaf said. "Is this one of the forces which sustain the rule or the political system in Iraq?"
Iraqi information officials took reporters to a residential neighborhood in Baghdad where a big crater had been gouged by a missile – apparently an errant one, and with few if any casualties. Sahhaf said other missiles had hit a factory that made batteries, a company that produces oils for automotive use and a training center for mechanics.
He provided direct confirmation, though, that two of the missiles had hit precisely where the Pentagon had aimed them: "They attacked . . . the headquarters of the Iraqi security police," he said; "they bombarded also the military intelligence services headquarters."
Ironically, in the hours between Wednesday's raids and the new ones last night, it seemed a relatively normal day in Baghdad, with people going about their affairs as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. Not so in Washington, however, where the impeachment drama competed with the Iraq attack for attention, analysis and the ever-present commodity called spin.
If U.S. officials were relatively reticent about the overall result of the attack, they were more voluble – though at times less precise – about its aims and how its success would ultimately be judged.
Clinton seemed to indicate that at least one major aim was to punish Saddam Hussein for not fully cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors. "I think it is very important that we not allow Saddam Hussein to destroy the [inspection] system without any penalty whatever," he said. "I think it would have been a disaster for us to do this. And so regrettably I made this decision."
Cohen said the aim of the attack was not to end the nearly decade-long standoff against Saddam Hussein, but to reduce the Iraqi leader's ability to threaten neighboring nations with chemical or biological weapons.
"It would be my hope that following this operation, Saddam Hussein would see the wisdom of finally complying" with the inspections regime, Cohen said. "We intend to continue the containment strategy. Should he either threaten his neighbors or try to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program, we are prepared to take action again."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in a briefing, outlined short-, medium- and long-term goals, without specifying a time frame for any of them.
The short-term goals of the attacks, she said, are to "degrade" Saddam Hussein's ability to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction, to degrade his command and control systems and to lessen the threat he poses to neighboring countries. The medium-term goal, she said, is to have a "strong, professional, functioning" U.N. inspection team working inside Iraq to make sure Saddam Hussein does not develop unconventional weapons – and also "containment" of the Iraqi leader through continuing economic sanctions.
"Longer-term," she said, "we have come to the determination that the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a government that really represented them. And . . . we are working with the various opposition groups on a longer-range way of trying to help them help themselves to have a regime that represents them."
This echoed the policy, enunciated but not elaborated recently by Clinton, that the United States would like to replace Saddam Hussein as Iraq's leader. However, officials maintained that the current airstrikes are not designed to do that.
Reaction across the country and around the world to the U.S.-British attack was ambiguous.
Polls by U.S. news organizations found that roughly three-quarters of Americans supported the airstrikes against Iraq, and that nearly two-thirds believed that Clinton had ordered the action in the best interests of the country, rather than because he might have wanted to delay the House vote on impeachment or divert attention from the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.
The Clinton administration received less support from other nations, however. Among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – which includes the United States and Britain, protagonists of the attack – there was either lukewarm support or outright opposition.
France offered the lukewarm support. The French government blamed Iraq for the escalation of the crisis but distanced itself from the attacks, with President Jacques Chirac saying he did not believe the airstrikes would bring the standoff with Iraq any closer to resolution.
China was more sharply critical. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi, describing Chinese officials as "shocked" by the action, said, "We urge the United States to immediately stop its military action towards Iraq."
The most vehement criticism came from Russia, which recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest. In Moscow, there was a rare spectacle: The whole fractious political spectrum united in opposition to the attack. In the Duma – the lower house of parliament – only one member voted against a resolution saying the airstrikes "constitute international terrorism."
President Boris Yeltsin said the attack was "fraught with the most dramatic consequences" for the Persian Gulf region and claimed it "crudely violated" the U.N. charter.
Among key Arab nations, Saudi Arabia offered verbal support – besides its material support, in allowing U.S. aircraft to be supported from bases inside the country. A statement issued by the Saudi embassy in Washington blamed Saddam Hussein for the crisis and what it called his "policy of brinksmanship." The statement expressed the wish, however, that the attack would end before Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that begins this weekend.
In the rest of the Arab world, newspapers and commentators were scathing in their criticism of the airstrikes. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, called the strike "an act of aggression against an Arab country." There were demonstrations against the raid in Cairo, Beirut and Amman, Jordan.
But many Arab leaders were more muted in their response, reflecting the antipathy many feel toward Saddam Hussein – and, in some cases, the degree to which they fear him.
Iran criticized the attacks but also called on Saddam Hussein to comply fully with U.N. resolutions. Iranian officials also noted that a stray missile from Wednesday's attack fell on Iranian soil, causing damage but no casualties.
Staff writers Dana Priest, David Ottaway and Guy Gugliotta, and correspondents Nora Boustany in Beirut, Howard Schneider in Baghdad and Lee Hockstader in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company