One Aim: Kill Saddam's 'Palace Guard'
By Barton Gellman and Vernon Loeb
The American-led bombardment of Iraq struck hard from the first night at five Republican Guard divisions deemed essential to protecting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from an armed uprising, attempting to kill large numbers of the regime's most loyal soldiers in their beds, according to a high-ranking defense official with firsthand knowledge of the target list.
Contrary to public denials, repeated yesterday by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, senior uniformed and civilian defense officials said it was a central war aim, as one top officer put it, "to weaken the regime." By surprising and incapacitating what one called "Saddam's palace guard," officials have intended to make room for large-scale rebellion by disaffected army units outside Baghdad.
Another component of that strategy was acknowledged at the Pentagon yesterday, when Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that U.S. military aircraft dropped 2 million leaflets on Iraqi army units in southern Iraq. The text of the leaflets was calculated in part to drive a wedge between regular Iraqi army troops and the better-paid, better-equipped Republican Guard.
The Arabic-language leaflets, also aimed at discouraging retaliation against Kuwait, featured pictures of destruction from the 1991 Persian Gulf War and delivered a stern warning: "Iraqi Soldiers, attention, this may save your life! Do not challenge coalition forces. Stay in your positions. Do not head south. Only those units who support the Baghdad regime were targeted."
It was unclear how many military losses were inflicted by the allied barrage. Pentagon leaders reported decidedly mixed results against other targets ranging from television transmitters to oil facilities. Officials declined repeatedly to address any questions involving Iraqi casualties. In some cases, U.S. planners appeared to have avoided targets out of concern for the potential civilian death toll.
But one senior flag officer who reviewed the war plans said that in the case of the Republican Guard the intention was to strike at troops in their barracks, a shift from the 1991 emphasis on destroying heavy fighting equipment. It appeared from preliminary analysis, the officer said, that "they didn't disperse in advance, and they didn't have time to get out," raising the prospect that large numbers of soldiers died in the bombardment.
"Opposition to Saddam will grow from the army," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after classified consultations with administration officials. "That's why the Guard is a target. This is not merely a faint hope." He added in an interview that "we are making clear" inside Iraq that the United States is promoting Saddam Hussein's overthrow and would support a coup-minded general.
A bomb damage slide displayed for reporters at the Pentagon yesterday indicated "moderate/severe damage" at divisional and corps headquarters of the guard.
"We are hitting the Republican Guard harder than we've ever done before," the officer said, acknowledging that such a claim is considerable in light of the emphasis placed on weakening the guard during the 1991 war. In 43 days of bombing then, allied bombers flew 5,646 strike sorties against guard units. By comparison, Pentagon leaders said there were a total 200 strike sorties against all targets on Thursday night.
But defense officials cited two differences from the Persian Gulf War. This week, most of the strikes were with precision weapons, while the overwhelming majority made against the guard in 1991 used conventional gravity bombs and many missed their targets. And while the guard had plenty of time to hunker down before Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Operation Desert Storm, American and British forces tried to catch it this time as it slept.
The intention to strike at the guard in its barracks accounted for the Pentagon's controversial projection of 10,000 Iraqi dead in the "medium scenario" under the attack ordered and then aborted Nov. 15. White House and State Department officials have challenged that figure, but acknowledged projections that reached 8,000 dead.
The Republican Guard units under attack since Wednesday included three armored and mechanized divisions and one light infantry division clustered around the Iraqi capital, including the Baghdad and Medina divisions, whose principal mission is to protect Saddam Hussein from armed rebellion. The other two targeted divisions were the Adnan heavy division, which faces the restive Kurdish northern region of Iraq, and another infantry division stationed at the 32nd parallel overlooking the Shiite-dominated south.
According to one official with access to military intelligence, the guard units spread out their tanks and heavy equipment as U.S. forces menaced them last month and they "had a limited amount of dispersal of the Republican Guard that never came off from the November time frame." But nearly all the soldiers, the official said, had returned to their barracks.
It was not clear last night whether particular army units might be poised for rebellion, and no official interviewed claimed to know of any.
"We're kind of rolling the dice," said one official. "If we knew about it in advance, I'm sure Saddam may know about it. Realistically the only thing we can do is create the conditions to assist them, and it really depends on how the regime reacts."
In a briefing today at the Pentagon, Cohen twice repeated his previous assertion that "we are not seeking to destabilize his regime." Although President Clinton has announced U.S. support for a change of government in Baghdad, some officials said declaring that ambition now would confuse Washington's essential justification for the attack to enforce United Nations resolutions and would raise expectations the administration is far from sure it can fulfill.
Shelton, who included eight Republican Guard "facilities" among the targets he cited during a briefing yesterday, said "we have no way of knowing whether or not the barracks were occupied at the time.
R. James Woolsey, the former director of central intelligence and a strong proponent of fomenting insurrection inside Iraq, said yesterday's leafleting of Iraqi army units suggested that administration officials were beginning to think beyond the current bombing campaign.
"I think it's smart, and I think it's going to have an effect," Woolsey said. "Remember Iraqi troops during the Gulf War some surrendered to drones, some surrendered to reporters, some surrendered to American forces. That is the first thing I have seen that suggests that they may actually be moving toward encouraging defections and trying to drive wedges in the military."
Staff writers Walter Pincus, Dana Priest and Rick Atkinson contributed to this report.
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