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Iraq Special Report

  Raids May Strike at Power Structure

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page A01

As President Clinton and his top advisers embark this week on what amounts to a marketing campaign for airstrikes on Iraq, the trend in their evolving war plan goes well beyond the emphasis in public on damaging prohibited weapons programs, according to participants in the ongoing internal debate.

Defense and foreign policy officials said the president's national security team remains divided over the aims and expectations of the intended bombardment, and frustrated senior officers said the target lists accumulating in the converted Bedouin village of Eskan in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Central Command's forward air headquarters, are still subject to daily revision.

But as bombing plans have expanded to encompass what one senior flag officer described as "thousands of aim points" in Iraq, a large share of the intended violence is now directed at the apparatus maintaining Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in power, from networks of secret police to Baath Party organs. Apart from the long-shot hope of a change of government, officials said, the aim is to crush Saddam Hussein's defiance by threatening his most valued assets of internal control.

The administration does not wish to advertise this intention, according to several accounts, because it fears the plan may not work. "In our public discourse of this we need to focus on an achievable objective," said one senior administration official.

But President Clinton's stated intention -- to damage forbidden weapons stocks from the air, rather than compel Iraq to give full access to United Nations inspectors charged with discovering them on the ground -- has been challenged by some in Congress and elsewhere as too limited. When critics in and out of government noted that Iraq could quickly reconstitute its biological and chemical weapons programs, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright declared last week that "we reserve the right for a follow-up strike."

There is broad dissatisfaction with that strategy in the military establishment, several senior officials said.

"We pay such a huge price politically that we have fewer friends next time and even fewer the time after that," said one military planner. "Every six months doing maintenance strikes on Iraq for the next 10 years doesn't seem to be good foreign policy or military strategy."

Gen. Anthony Zinni, chief of the U.S. Central Command, telegraphed an alternative in comments to traveling defense reporters last week. Asked what he had meant in a previous statement, when he spoke of targeting "what Saddam holds dear," he listed first among the intended targets the Iraqi president's apparatus of internal control.

"I think the things that obviously allow him to stay in power, threaten his neighbors, threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction -- the things that are involved in the control of those sorts of assets, and those are the kind of things I feel he holds dear," he said.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War featured a similar but largely abortive effort to target Saddam Hussein's power base. But the objectives of that war's six-week air campaign were largely elsewhere, and target planners then devoted less than 1 percent of their bombing missions -- 260 of 36,046 "strike sorties" -- to the category they designated "L" for leadership.

This time there will be far fewer bombing runs in all -- probably less than 400 a day, several senior officers estimated. But with the war plans lasting at least several days, senior generals said, American and British warplanes could drop more precision-guided weapons this time than they did seven years ago on what one officer called Saddam Hussein's "apparatus of repression."

"The emphasis is not just on chemical and biological [weapons]," a top flag officer said. "The emphasis is on, you're going to make it hurt, and the best way to hurt him is his core infrastructure. We're not going to leave that alone as we have in the past. . . . If he feels threatened enough with his regime stability, then he has no choice but to acquiesce. It's typical dictator mentality that the biggest thing that drives him is holding onto power."

Leadership targets in the 1991 war were concentrated largely in downtown Baghdad. But the intervening seven years, defense and intelligence officials said, have revealed a good deal more about Saddam Hussein's mechanisms of control, including regional centers of the secret police and the Special Security Organization run by his younger son, Qusay. Among the new sources of information have been thousands of reconnaissance flights in support of U.N. inspectors and the windfall brought by the 1995 defection to Jordan of Hussein Kamel, a top lieutenant and son-in-law of Saddam Hussein.

"Since the gulf war he has made a whole bunch of different changes in where and how he puts those key components that support him, many of which are not downtown, and we have a lot more visibility," said an officer who has studied Iraq closely. "We understand his command and control philosophy, we understand his organizations, we had the defection of his son-in-law, who told us a tremendous amount about how he organizes his internal mechanisms. Our glimpse of how Saddam runs his regime is much greater."

The Clinton administration has struggled, in nearly four months of effort, to harness military force to the broad U.S. interest in blocking Iraq's development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Members of interagency working groups said they considered and rejected plans ranging from insertion of ground troops for "inspections by force" to an escalating sequence of bombardment and ultimatum.

In a Saturday meeting last November of the Cabinet-rank national security team, shortly after Iraq expelled all Americans on the U.N. inspection teams, Albright solicited a debate on whether the administration should shift its emphasis from containment of the Baghdad government to replacement of the regime.

One Cabinet official said that was "clearly one of the most difficult questions" the administration faced, but according to accounts from inside the meeting, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected the idea at once, saying it was beyond the means of any but the largest military intervention, with U.S. ground troops.

When a Russian-brokered diplomatic solution gave way to renewed impasse with the U.N. inspection teams last month, several officials said the Clinton administration began to threaten the use of military force before fully thinking through what force might be used.

"The idea we had was that diplomacy plus the threat of force would coerce him to allow the inspectors to return and do their jobs," said one official. "It may not, or it may yet."

The administration's bid for political support, which focused last week on private briefings for members of Congress, takes to the public today with a speech by Clinton at the Pentagon intended for live telecast. On Wednesday, his three senior advisers -- Albright, Berger and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen -- will lead a town meeting at Ohio State University.

Unlimited access for U.N. inspectors -- "unfettered and unconditional," in Albright's public mantra -- became the centerpiece of the administration's public diplomacy. Asked about the purpose of military force, Albright said flatly on Jan. 28 it was to coerce a change of behavior by Saddam Hussein, but she and others dropped that formulation soon afterward.

Military commanders, who took their guidance from a succession of public and private instructions, included coercive aspects in the air campaign from the beginning. In Sumter, S.C., where Lt. Gen. Carl Franklin commands the Central Command's air component, target planners revised gulf war strategies on how to inflict the most pain on the regime.

With inspectors blocked from access, there were some advocates in the uniformed military for inspection by force.

"You insert a team of inspectors on the ground and give them constant air cover," said one general with responsibility in the region, who remains an advocate of the approach. "If a team of Iraqi soldiers heads their way, then [attacking them] is self-defense. You make them the aggressors."

But as one British official noted dryly, citing heavy losses to U.S. special forces in a failed raid in Somalia, "You can do that once or twice, but then you're likely to get yourself in trouble, aren't you?"

"The other difficulty is that [U.N. inspectors] tend to take the firm position that they will not take part in such dangerous circumstances," the British official said. "They ask politely to come in and if they are turned away, they report that to the Security Council. They don't come in at the point of a gun."

Defense officials warned in the internal debate that they could not undertake to destroy the bulk of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons because they do not know where many of them are hidden and they can be so easily rebuilt, participants said.

"To say you can 'substantially reduce' something as nebulous as the production of chemical and biological agents, that's very very difficult to do, because they can be produced in so many dispersed areas and they can be regenerated with reasonably benign ingredients," said one Navy admiral, citing Cohen's televised appearance with a prop intended to represent a five-pound bag of anthrax toxin. "The $64,000 question is how is it substantial if there's one five-pound bag left?"

"Any country that can make pesticides can make nerve gas," said a senior policy official. "That's a sort of awkward fact about chemical and biological weapons."

In thinking about coercion, a leading model for some planners was Operation Deliberate Force, the administration's calculated use of air power to force Bosnian Serbs to negotiate the Dayton peace accord.

What worked in Bosnia, Air Force officers said, was that Gen. Michael Ryan -- then NATO's southern air commander, now Air Force chief of staff -- correctly identified the most sensitive pressure point of the Serbian forces, their "center of gravity" in military parlance.

"General Ryan figured out qualitatively that the Serb center of gravity was security from Croat ground forces," one target planner said. "By taking away their indirect fire weapons, their artillery, their command and control, he made them feel they couldn't handle any Croat or Muslim ground offensive."

The Iraqi equivalent, by this account, is the broad range of security forces that enables Saddam Hussein to crush internal dissent. These include the Mukhabarat, or general intelligence service; the Special Security Organization run by his younger son; the Republican Guard and its special subsidiaries; and the Baath Party organization throughout Iraq.

"The primary objective, I think, should be to remove the security from the regime," said one uniformed target planner.

But others said they could promise nothing more than reaching specified levels of damage to specified classes of targets.

"We think we can execute the plan, if they don't keep changing it," one officer said. "What we don't know is what political effects the plan will achieve."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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