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  The Big Military Question: What's Next?

    deckhands scrub
The deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise gets scrubbed after airstrikes on Iraq came to a halt. (Reuters)
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A25

In the months leading up to last week's airstrikes against Iraq, senior commanders regularly expressed one overriding concern: What were U.S. forces supposed to do after they finished the bombardment?

"The question all military people were asking was: What's next?" a senior general involved in the operation said yesterday. "We had a plan that would take us 70 hours, but beyond that, what were we to do?"

The day after the end of the bombing that left Iraqi military barracks, headquarters structures, missile production facilities, airfields and other targets in ruins, the outlines of the U.S. military's future mission in the Persian Gulf region emerged, and it looked largely unchanged.

A substantial contingent of warships and land-based combat planes will remain in the region on patrol, administration officials announced, laying out a strategy that envisions the indefinite military and economic containment of Iraq. U.S. troops will continue to enforce bans against flights of Iraqi military aircraft over the southern and northern sections of the country, curtail oil smuggling and otherwise keep a lid on potential aggression by President Saddam Hussein.

But with one difference: From now on, the trigger for military action will no longer depend on Iraq's compliance with U.N. weapons inspections because the return of the inspectors is very much in doubt. Instead, there will be other triggers, although just what U.S. officials will consider a provocation has yet to be defined, except in the most general terms.

In remarks Saturday declaring an end to the airstrikes, Clinton warned that U.S. forces would attack again if Saddam Hussein tries to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction, assaults his neighbors, challenges allied aircraft or moves against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Yesterday, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said he expects that Iraq will try to repair the military facilities destroyed in the airstrikes, and other defense officials said the Pentagon was drawing up plans for a possible series of airstrikes early next year.

But determining – with enough certainty to justify further military action – that Iraq is trying to reconstitute its weapons-making capabilities is likely to be more complicated than before.

"The problem is, it'll be harder to get the evidence without U.N. inspectors on the ground," said a recently retired flag officer who participated in policy discussions about Iraq.

Appearing with Cohen on CBS's "Face the Nation," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the Pentagon plans to keep in the Persian Gulf roughly the same sized force it has maintained there in recent months. While the number of U.S. troops in the region has fluctuated since the end of the Persian Gulf War, military planners have settled on a force of about 20,000 as adequate to police Iraq, barring any attempt by Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait or lob missiles into Israel. It was a force of this scale – consisting essentially of one naval carrier battle group and more than 100 land-based warplanes – that conducted last week's air campaign.

"We'll continue to maintain the military force we've had in the area," Shelton said. "We will still have a no-fly zone, a no-drive zone. We'll continue the maritime interdiction operations."

In setting modest objectives for the four nights of airstrikes, Pentagon officials tried to avoid raising expectations about what could be accomplished during such a brief air campaign. Their declared aims were limited to reducing Iraq's weapons capabilities and diminishing the threat Baghdad poses to its neighbors.

Even before knowing they would be carrying out the strikes near the start of the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, senior U.S. officials had designed a relatively short campaign, concerned that a longer attack would do more to inflame Arab and other international reaction, according to military officers involved in the planning.

To keep Iraqi civilian casualties as low as possible, senior Pentagon officials also recommended avoiding those "dual use" facilities, such as breweries, pharmaceutical factories and dairies that can be converted to the production of illicit chemical or biological warfare agents. This reduced the prospect that the bombing could fulfill its main objective of crippling Iraq's ability to make and store weapons of mass destruction. But going after potential production and storage facilities was a long shot anyway, given Iraq's success in hiding whatever equipment and seed stocks it has. So U.S. military planners preferred to concentrate on targeting potential delivery systems, meaning missile production facilities and airfields.

In contrast to the lengths they went to spare civilians, U.S. commanders showed little hesitation about targeting those military and security forces considered most loyal to Saddam Hussein. American forces attacked not just the headquarters of Iraqi military intelligence, Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization, but also barracks housing Republican Guard troops, while regular Army units were left alone.

This aspect of the war plan served what military officials acknowledged was the larger, if undeclared, purpose of the airstrikes: to weaken Saddam Hussein's hold on power by damaging his personal support structure and sowing unrest within the Iraqi military. The Pentagon still had no estimate yesterday on the number of Iraqi troops killed in the attacks. But one general said the count, if one is ever made, would be less significant than the fact that the Republican Guard units were targeted as aggressively as they were.

"We did clean out a lot of barracks," he said. "But whether there was anyone in those barracks, there was a strong message sent to those people who are part of Saddam Hussein's regime – that if you support this guy, you could be in peril."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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