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  U.S. Assesses Airstrikes' Spotted Damage

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A1

As American and British forces bombarded Iraq for a third straight night, officials in Washington said they were nearing the end of their list of planned targets after striking a series of military sites but also one of Iraq's largest oil refineries, which provided a main source of revenue for the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials also revealed that the bombing campaign has had only mixed success, despite a near-total lack of resistance from Iraq's military forces. Of five airfields attacked, for example, four suffered just moderate damage or none at all; of 27 Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites targeted, eight emerged unscathed. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the bombing was going "reasonably well" from the American point of view.

One principal goal of the attacks became clearer as senior defense officials disclosed that they had targeted large troop concentrations of Iraq's Republican Guard, potentially causing large numbers of military casualties and, American planners hoped, encouraging dissent among other troops less loyal to the regime.

But in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein defiantly vowed never to "compromise or kneel" in the face of the airstrikes. His remarks, in a televised statement, appeared to be part of an Iraqi strategy to ride out the assault with the aim of achieving an improved political position in the long run – either getting out from under crippling U.N. sanctions or getting rid of U.N. weapons inspectors.

These developments came on a day when the attention of Washington and the rest of the country was again riven between the bombing campaign, which constituted the greatest use of American arms since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the daylong debate in the House of Representatives over the possible impeachment of President Clinton, a moment in the nation's history without equal in 130 years.

The two narratives – of war and of punishment – both hurtled toward climax. And neither offered a clear glimpse of what was to come afterward.

For the first time, U.S. officials stated explicitly that the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last night would not necessarily lead them to halt the bombing campaign for religious considerations. "That is not an automatic deadline," national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said.

As a practical matter, though, the United States and Britain, the two nations participating in the attacks, have finite resources in the Persian Gulf region. While more cruise missiles have been fired this week than during the entire Gulf War the kind of sustained bombing campaign that preceded ground action in the Gulf War would be impossible to duplicate with the many fewer aircraft currently in the region.

This calculation was not lost on Iraqi officials, who thus far have absorbed the attacks without vigorously fighting back and made no move toward concessions that might halt the bombing.

"The reality is that the resources they could assemble for this aggression are limited," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at a news conference in Baghdad. "They are not the same resources that they assembled in the aggression of 1991. They cannot throw 200 missiles every day for a whole month."

Aziz added his assessment that the U.S. and British forces arrayed against Iraq are capable of sustaining their barrage "for a few days," but no more. "It might be extended one, two, three, four days, but they cannot go on with these resources for a very long period," he said.

Iraqi medical officials said there have been about 30 deaths in the Baghdad area. A Red Cross spokesmen estimated from 30 to 40 dead in metropolitan Baghdad, with about 80 injured.

Aziz said the attack on the giant Basra oil refinery complex – the third-largest in a country that harbors vast oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's – demonstrated that the United States and Britain were not targeting just military installations or sites involved in producing weapons of mass destruction, but instead had taken aim at "the whole people of Iraq."

In Washington, Cohen described the bombing of the refinery in southern Iraq as a "very limited" attack designed to halt illegal oil smuggling that benefits Saddam Hussein's regime. Under sanctions imposed by the United Nations, Iraq is allowed to sell only a limited amount of its oil in order to obtain needed food supplies. U.S. officials say, however, that Iraq circumvents the restrictions through smuggling that earns the government up to $700 million a year.

Another target that Aziz called non-military was a radio and television transmitting facility. "Radio and television are not arms of mass destruction," he said. "They are not the means . . . that could be used by the government of Iraq to threaten its neighbors."

Cohen said the transmission facilities were targeted because they were considered part of Saddam Hussein's "command and control operations" and an outlet for his "propaganda."

Referring to the direct warnings to Iraqi troops, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that leaflets were dropped over southern Iraq imploring soldiers to remain safe in their barracks. He denied suggestions that the leaflets were an attempt to incite rebellion among the troops, saying they consisted of a simple warning to "stay where you are."

In the wake of the Gulf War, much of the population of southern Iraq tried to revolt against Saddam Hussein. The uprising, however, was crushed by troops loyal to the Iraqi dictator.

"We are not seeking to destabilize his regime," Cohen said.

U.S. officials yesterday gave the most detailed accounting to date of the results of some of the early waves of attacks by allied cruise missiles and aircraft, which began Wednesday. They said that the attacks could conceivably continue after commanders had exhausted their list of targets if they determined that sites had not been sufficiently damaged in the first round of strikes.

Shelton showed video images of a Navy F-14 Tomcat jet, operating from the carrier USS Enterprise, attacking what Shelton called a "critical communications facility" with two laser-guided bombs. It was reminiscent of the action sequences that became the visual signature of the Gulf War.

But Shelton acknowledged that not all the strikes "have gone exactly as planned."

Only one of the 27 surface-to-air missile sites and integrated air defense sites attacked in the raids has been confirmed destroyed, the Pentagon said. Ten of 18 "command and control" facilities were severely damaged or destroyed, while others sustained moderate or no damage.

U.S. and British forces attacked 19 "security facilities" where Saddam Hussein's Special Republican Guards were housed. Two were destroyed and nine suffered moderate damage, the Pentagon said, but four suffered only light damage and one was not damaged at all.

Of 11 facilities where U.S. officials say Iraq has been producing weapons of mass destruction – chemical or biological arms – there was no assessment available of the damage done to eight sites. Of the ones whose condition was known, two sustained light damage and only one suffered moderate damage.

This capability to produce weapons of mass destruction has been at the center of the standoff between allied nations, led by the United States, and Iraq. It was a highly critical report on Iraqi cooperation from the U.N. weapons inspection team, called UNSCOM, that triggered the current bombing campaign.

There was no way to independently assess the damage – or, for that matter, the number of Iraqi casualties. In Baghdad, Iraqi officials have taken journalists to several sites that suffered moderate collateral damage – a hospital, for example, where some glass had been shattered by a nearby explosion. But they have not allowed reporters to see military sites and other sensitive installations that were targeted in the raids.

Any failure to destroy targets has to do with the accuracy of the cruise missiles and the pilots and crews of the U.S. warplanes – which yesterday included the Air Force's B-1 bomber, making its first appearance on a combat mission – rather than with Iraqi resistance. The Iraqis, in fact, have hardly put up any resistance at all. For example, as of yesterday, Iraq had not fired a single surface-to-air missile at the attackers.

"If there is any surprise, it's the complete lack of response," said Vice Admiral Scott Fry, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Staff.

That lack of response, together with remarks from high-ranking Iraqi officials, suggested that Iraq's gambit might be to absorb the U.S.-British blow and then try to seize the moment to rid itself of the U.N. sanctions or the weapons inspectors. "Iraq cannot tolerate both sanctions and UNSCOM," Aziz said.

Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, sounded the same theme in an interview with Reuters in New York yesterday. He said Iraq might consider allowing the weapons inspectors, who were pulled out of the country earlier this week, to return – but only if the comprehensive economic sanctions are lifted.

"If sanctions are gone, we could consider the future of UNSCOM," Hamdoon said. "You cannot get both UNSCOM and the sanctions at the same place at the same time anymore."

U.S. officials fear that without the sanctions, Saddam Hussein would use Iraq's oil revenue to build up conventional and unconventional forces and once again threaten neighboring countries – as Iraq did in its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But U.S. officials also fear that without the weapons inspectors, Iraq could reconstitute its chemical, biological and perhaps its nuclear weapons programs even if the sanctions were left in place.

Other key nations, especially Russia and France, have been pushing for some time for a review that could eventually lead to the sanctions' being lifted. France has given unenthusiastic support to this week's bombing campaign, but Russia has reacted with anger, bitterly criticizing the assault and withdrawing its ambassadors from Washington and London in protest.

"Clearly the Russians disagree with us on the use of force in Iraq," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said yesterday. "They, however, had no good ideas about how to solve the problem."

To try to calm the waters, Clinton wrote a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin explaining the action. Vice President Gore spoke by telephone Thursday with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and officials announced that Albright will visit Moscow next month.

All this activity occurred on a day when, for many in the United States and around the world, the main news was taking place not in the skies over Iraq but on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. War, traditionally considered the most solemn decision a sovereign state can make, had to take second-billing to the marathon debate over whether Clinton should be impeached. All-news television networks covered the debate but interrupted periodically to show green-tinged images from Baghdad whenever the air-raid sirens sounded or the antiaircraft fire lit up the sky.

Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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