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  Airstrikes Took a Toll On Saddam, U.S. Says

Gen. Anthony Zinni, Commander, U.S. Central Command At a Pentagon briefing, Gen. Anthony Zinni discusses damage to Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Fox. (Associated Press)

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  • By Dana Priest and Bradley Graham
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 9, 1999; Page A14

    The top U.S. military commander and the Marine general in charge of airstrikes last month against Iraq said yesterday that they believe the attack has weakened Saddam Hussein's hold on power and encouraged suspicion and disloyalty within his military.

    "I do believe, personally, that he is shaken," said Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command, who directed the four days of bombings from his headquarters in Tampa. "There are signs that there is a degree of loss of control . . . to what degree that is and how significant it is, I couldn't make that judgment."

    Among the factors leading Zinni and others to that conclusion is the apparent death in the attack of several high-ranking Iraqi officials, the Iraqi execution in the south of a regular army division commander suspected of disloyalty, and reports indicating that as many as 2,000 of the Iraqi leader's most valuable troops were killed in the attack and several times that number were likely injured.

    The Pentagon's officially stated purpose for the attack was to destroy Saddam Hussein's capacity to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. But it has become clear since then that another goal was to kill and demoralize the elite forces closest to the Iraqi leader and to send a message to them, and to the less politicized regular army, that the United States considers supporters of the regime targets for future attacks.

    "We know who protects the center of gravity," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast meeting yesterday. "And so that's who was targeted."

    Shelton said the airstrikes had likely killed "several key individuals that were right in the upper structure" of the Iraqi leadership. Declining to identify them by name or position, he said they would "no longer be available to him [Saddam Hussein] to advise or to lead."

    Shelton and Zinni depicted the attacks as more accurate and damaging to Saddam Hussein's power base than they had first suspected. Zinni said there are reports that as many as 2,000 Republican Guard members might have been killed; Shelton said "unconfirmed reporting from a variety of sources" showed that as many as 1,600 guard troops may have died.

    Shelton said the latest U.S. bomb damage assessments indicate more severe damage than first reported to the kind of equipment used by Iraq to manufacture and repair ballistic missiles and air defense systems. Among the most significant losses, Shelton said, were some "one-of-a-kind" pieces of equipment, including fabrication presses and engine-testing gear, that were destroyed.

    Shelton expressed particular satisfaction at the apparently low number of civilian casualties, citing as evidence that few were killed the fact that Baghdad authorities have largely prevented international media from viewing much of the damage. Iraqi officials said after the attacks that most casualties had been civilians and placed the number at as many as 70.

    To deal with Saddam Hussein's continued attempts to provoke reaction from U.S. and British pilots patrolling the so-called no-fly zones in the north and south, Zinni has asked for permission to bring to the region eight more F-16 jet fighters and four KC-130 tankers for refueling.

    Military analysts say one of the reasons Saddam Hussein has been sending up planes nearly every day since Dec. 23 to play cat-and-mouse with allied pilots is to turn international opinion against the no-fly zones, which were imposed unilaterally after the Gulf War.

    Last week France confirmed that it had stopped participating in allied flights over the southern no-fly zone as a result of the airstrikes. France has argued for a more conciliatory approach toward Iraq, including lifting the economic sanctions that are now the most punitive measures still in place against Iraq.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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