If U.S. Military Strike Doesn't Sway Saddam, What's Next? Other Moves to Force Compliance Are Unclear
By Thomas W. Lippman and Barton Gellman
In a news conference yesterday before she left on a diplomatic tour of Europe and the Middle East, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said that the purpose of military action would be "to coerce" Saddam Hussein into complying with the terms of United Nations sanctions. Albright said that she was not so much seeking support for the U.S. position as explaining the administration's resolve to use force if necessary.
But several administration and military officials said yesterday that despite the advanced state of planning for a sustained attack and a growing sense of inevitability, there is still doubt that bombing alone would induce Iraq to allow unfettered inspections of its weapons program.
Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, underscored the remaining questions at a Senate hearing yesterday. "We are probably faced with some kind of a decision in the next few weeks or months where we have to decide what it is we want to do with Iraq," he said, adding that that was "a policy issue that someone else will have to decide."
A senior military officer involved in the planning of the Iraq operation said last night, "We still have a lot of work to do. We've got to clearly understand what the endstate would be."
The administration is planning an escalating series of missile and bombing attacks aimed at inflicting major damage on Iraqi weapons production facilities, as well as to communication centers and to units of Iraq's elite Republican Guard, if a last-minute round of diplomacy fails to persuade Saddam Hussein to lift obstacles to weapons inspections, according to officials.
Senior officials and sources who have been briefed on the plan said the administration's current expectation is that the first stage of the campaign would end with an ultimatum to resume bombing by what one official called "a date certain" if Iraq failed to permit U.N. inspectors to enter suspect weapons sites at will.
But a senior officer, speaking on condition he not be named, said administration officials are assuming that Saddam Hussein will "continually refuse" demands for compliance. "Then you have to be able to say, 'Okay, this is the price you pay, more airstrikes. . . . Who knows where this will stop?' "
Administration officials recall that a month-long air campaign in 1991 did not topple Saddam Hussein, provoke a mutiny in his army, or force him to withdraw troops from Kuwait even though its scale -- involving thousands of combat aircraft and tens of thousands of tons of bombs -- was orders of magnitude larger than anything contemplated now.
The administration is trying to "compel compliance with the inspection regime by force," a senior Pentagon official said. "Once you do that, you better be prepared for that not to work, for Saddam Hussein not to comply" and to be able to maintain a Security Council consensus if that happens.
In addition, Arab diplomats and independent analysts said, the administration appears to be planning a military campaign without a clear sense of how to follow it up if the military strikes fail to achieve compliance.
"We are hopeful there's a political program for the day after," an Arab diplomat said. He and others said they hope that the United States has been working with dissidents in the Iraqi leadership who might take over if Saddam Hussein is significantly weakened. But a veteran government analyst of Iraqi affairs said that United States has "no assets" inside Iraq, an assessment Hughes appeared to confirm.
The United States has such complete military control of the Persian Gulf region that "even the smallest attack" by Iraq against its neighbors would provoke "immediate retaliation by us and our allies," Hughes said. What the United States does not have, he said, is "control of the internal circumstances inside Iraq so that we could prevent this kind of generation of crisis, this belligerent attitude, this resistance to the [U.N.] inspection regime and the sanction regime."
"Where we would be on the political front after this?" asked Don M. Snider, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Military Academy. "What happens if in the very first strike it is clear there were major stocks [of chemical or biological weapons] and they were destroyed?"
According to Snider, bombing might inflict heavy damage on known, observable weapons facilities, but would do little or nothing to hit concealed computer disks of individual weapons scientists who have eluded on-site detection for seven years. Testifying with Hughes before a Senate committee yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Phyllis Oakley said that there are "enormous gaps" in knowledge about the state of Iraq's weapons programs.
President Clinton's foreign policy advisers anticipate enormous pressure to halt bombardment after the first or second day, and they acknowledge that time will be working against them should the president give the order to launch.
"Certainly you can't get all his palaces in a day," said one official who has taken part in military planning meetings.
"We may be setting ourselves up for failure," said Zalmay Khalilzad, an analyst at Rand Corp. If the United States conducts a limited campaign of three or four days, he said, "Saddam Hussein could take that and be in a stronger position. There is potentially a gap between our objective and what we are prepared to do, unless Saddam Hussein is looking for an excuse to cooperate" with the U.N. inspectors he has hitherto defied.
Previous military strikes were aimed at deterring or punishing Iraqi aggression, Khalilzad said. "Now what we are trying to do is something qualitatively different," he said, "which is to coerce Iraq to do something that we want it to do. Historically, coercion has been tougher."
Albright departed early this morning for Europe to share Washington's assessment of the crisis with her French, British and Russian counterparts. Russia is strongly opposed to the use of force, and France has also expressed reservations.
"I am not going anywhere to seek support," she said at a news conference. "I am going to explain our position. And while we prefer always to go multilaterally and have as much support as possible, we are prepared to go unilaterally."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is planning to travel to the Persian Gulf states, beginning with a Feb. 8 stop in Saudi Arabia, then on to Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait. He also plans to visit Russia.
United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson also left the country last night to explain the U.S. position to countries in Europe, Africa, and South America.
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Dana Priest contributed to this report.
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