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Iraq Special Report

  U.S. Targets Sites Crucial to Weapon-Making

    Carrier deck
Sailors prepare to attach two 500-pound laser-guided bombs to an F/A-18 Hornet aboard a U.S. carrier in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday. (AP)

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  • By Bradley Graham and Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A29

    The opening U.S. attack against Iraq yesterday involved more than 200 cruise missiles launched from ships in the Persian Gulf and scores of bombs dropped from aircraft flying from the carrier USS Enterprise against targets across the country, defense officials said.

    With the strikes planned to last at least three days and possibly longer, officials said U.S. and British warplanes stationed in Persian Gulf states and B-52 bombers operating out of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia would join the effort, which aims to pummel a broad range of targets critical to Iraq's weapons manufacturing and President Saddam Hussein's hold on power.

    In launching the attacks, President Clinton crossed a threshold of substantial military action that he repeatedly had threatened in the face of Iraqi defiance of United Nations weapons inspections. But the bombardment, while considerably more than the pinprick strikes carried out occasionally since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, appeared designed as less than a conclusive blow against Saddam Hussein's rule.

    Clinton and his senior national security aides signaled the measured nature of the operation by confining the objectives to degrading Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors and to manufacture and deliver nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Absent in the administration's stated aims was any mention of using the bombing to remove Saddam Hussein from power or change the ruling apparatus in Baghdad.

    Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen declined to put a time limit on the operation. While acknowledging a U.S. concern about extending the strikes into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend, Cohen suggested that the military action had no firm date for conclusion and would depend on the success of the bombing.

    He also made clear that after its long history of failed pledges to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, there was nothing Iraq could say at this point to cause the United States to halt the attack. "We intend to continue the mission until such time as we carry out our objectives," Cohen said.

    Indicating the length of the operation would also depend on whether Iraq responds militarily, Cohen confirmed that U.S. officials are worried Iraq may attempt a retaliatory strike against Kuwait or Israel. He said this concern is shared by those countries, noting "the neighbors are on full alert."

    The Pentagon leader added that Iraq has been warned specifically that any attack on Israel would bring "severe consequences."

    According to U.S. intelligence sources, Saddam Hussein issued contingency instructions to his military commanders last week that targets in and around Baghdad were to be vigorously defended. Anticipating that principal communications networks would be cut off in an attack, the Iraqi leader also ordered troops in southern Iraq to attack Kuwait within 48 hours after the beginning of a U.S. assault, unless they receive other instructions from him, the sources reported.

    The threat of an Iraqi response was a major consideration behind Clinton's decision to order additional forces to the gulf yesterday. Defense officials said several dozen more land-based combat aircraft, including F-117 stealth jets, will rush to the region, along with 2,700 Army troops that will join the 1,200 soldiers already in Kuwait. A second aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, already was due to join the USS Enterprise in the gulf by the weekend.

    U.S. officials described the airstrikes as an attempt to do with military force what U.N. inspectors have tried to do since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War: block Iraq from reviving its development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. But they noted that airstrikes are a blunt instrument compared with inspections and therefore less preferable.

    They also acknowledged how little is known about where Iraq may still be harboring proscribed weapons.

    "There are difficult targets to find," Cohen said. "But we've indicated we will degrade his ability to threaten his neighbors, we will degrade his ability to deliver those weapons, and we will strike some of those facilities."

    Another official said that despite the difficulty, a number of significant targets related to Iraq's biological and chemical weapons production have been identified.

    "We realize we probably can't be 100 percent successful," the official said. "I hope our expectations are not out of proportion to what we can do."

    Unable to find all the equipment or seed stocks that Iraq would use to rebuild its chemical and biological arsenal, the airstrikes likely would concentrate on delivery systems, defense officials said. That suggests hitting Iraq's remaining Mirage, Tupolev and MiG warplanes and the airfields that support them, as well as stocks of short-range missiles and manufacturing facilities associated with missile components.

    Military planners also have indicated an interest in going after some of the security apparatus Saddam Hussein relies on to maintain control. This would include headquarters of a half-dozen special security and intelligence services as well as the Special Republican Guard whose mission is to protect the Iraqi leader.

    The potential for civilian casualties was a major factor in shaping the strike plan, with military planners listing projected numbers of civilian deaths next to each proposed target and the Pentagon's top leaders reluctant to recommend attacking sites that could result in a high civilian toll, defense officials said.

    Nevertheless, Pentagon officials have warned policymakers that Iraqi casualties, military and civilian, could run into the thousands.

    One of the biggest challenges for those picking targets was deciding among commercial and industrial facilities whose equipment could be diverted to activities related to weapons of mass destruction. Many of these were among the scores of sites – including pharmaceutical and pesticide plants, breweries and food processing facilities – that U.N. weapons inspectors sought to monitor with visits and camera surveillance.

    In the first wave of strikes, officials said the target list included command-and-control centers for Iraq's integrated air defense system. These centers are spread out around the country, with the main headquarters in Baghdad.

    "First you knock out the brains," said one high-ranking official, adding that the aim is to clear a safe path for a bigger strike using manned aircraft.

    The attacks came in waves that lasted more than four hours, ceasing before daylight in Iraq. With daylight lulls allowing reconnaissance aircraft and satellites to survey the damage, officials said the airstrikes likely would resume after nightfall.

    They said one of the difficulties in predicting when the operation might end is anticipating the time needed to acquire adequate damage assessments and conclude that targets have been hit sufficiently.

    One senior military officer said that while the operation could be over in as little as three days, it could well last into Ramadan.

    During their news conference, Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered few details about the operation, dubbed "Desert Fox."

    Pressed on whether the impending House impeachment vote played any role in the timing of the U.S. strike, both men strongly denied that it was a factor.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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