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U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush

By David Von Drehle and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 27, 1993; Page A01

U.S. Navy ships launched 23 Tomahawk missiles against the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service yesterday in what President Clinton said was a "firm and commensurate" response to Iraq's plan to assassinate former president George Bush in mid-April.

The attack was meant to strike at the building where Iraqi officials had plotted against Bush, organized other unspecified terrorist actions and directed repressive internal security measures, senior U.S. officials said.

Clinton, speaking in a televised address to the nation at 7:40 last night, said he ordered the attack to send three messages to the Iraqi leadership: "We will combat terrorism. We will deter aggression. We will protect our people."

Clinton said he ordered the attack after receiving "compelling evidence" from U.S. intelligence officials that Bush had been the target of an assassination plot and that the plot was "directed and pursued by the Iraqi Intelligence Service."

"It was an elaborate plan devised by the Iraqi government and directed against a former president of the United States because of actions he took as president," Clinton said. Bush led the coalition that drove Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "As such, the Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans," Clinton said.

After two months of investigation and mounting evidence, Clinton became convinced during two "exhaustive and exhausting" meetings last week that Iraq was indeed behind a foiled car-bomb plot to kill Bush during his visit to Kuwait April 14-16, a senior administration official said.

Aides met with Clinton Wednesday in the White House residence to present a summary of the evidence gathered by FBI and intelligence sources, the official said. On Thursday, Attorney General Janet Reno and CIA Director R. James Woolsey presented the president with their formal reports.

Clinton ordered the attack Friday, but the raid was delayed a day so it would not fall on the Muslim sabbath, the official said. "About a dozen" U.S. allies and "friends in the region" were told in advance that the attack was coming; the reaction, according to the official, was mostly favorable. British Prime Minister John Major issued a statement last night supporting Clinton's action.

The missiles struck late at night -- between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Baghdad time -- because Clinton wished to minimize possible deaths of innocent civilians.

But Iraq, which has consistently denied involvement in any assassination plot against Bush, said there were "many civilian casualties" as a result of the Tomahawk attack, the Reuter news service reported. It quoted Iraqi civil defense officials as saying three people were killed and four rescued.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ruling Revolution Command Council denounced the raid as "cowardly aggression" and said Washington's reason for launching it was "fabricated by the vile Kuwaiti rulers in coordination with agencies in the U.S. administration."

An Iraqi Ministry of Information spokesman said the missiles hit a residential area, where Reuter reported that three houses were destroyed.

From Baghdad, Reuter reported smoke and what appeared to be a huge blaze could be seen rising from the site, about two miles from the center of the city in a residential district. But reporters were not immediately given access to the site.

Clinton was persuaded to act by three kinds of evidence, a senior intelligence official said last night. First, key suspects in the plot confessed to FBI agents in Kuwait. Second, FBI bomb experts painstakingly linked the captured car bomb to previous explosives made in Iraq. Third, unspecified intelligence assessments concluded that Saddam meant seriously the threats he has made against Bush. Other classified intelligence sources supported this analysis, the official said.

The combination made the CIA "highly confident that the Iraqi government, at the highest levels, directed its intelligence service to assassinate former president Bush," said the intelligence official.

Clinton had harsh words for Saddam -- Bush's arch-nemesis during the Persian Gulf War -- in his Oval Office address. After listing the Iraqi leader's offenses against the world and his own people, Clinton said: "This attempt at revenge by a tyrant against the leader of the world coalition that defeated him in war is particularly loathsome and cowardly."

Indeed, the tone of the whole speech was notably forceful and stern, coming from the often avuncular Clinton. He saved his kind words for the men and women involved in the investigation and the military strike: "You have my gratitude, and the gratitude of all Americans," he said.

The action was the second major U.S. military operation conducted during Clinton's presidency, coming just two weeks after U.S. forces participated in a multinational strike against forces in Somalia allied with warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. Unlike that operation, the raid against Iraq was taken unilaterally, entirely apart from the U.N. sanctions still in place against the Iraqi regime.

"This crime was committed against the United States, and we elected to respond and to exercise our right of self defense" under Article 51 of the U.N. charter, Defense Secretary Les Aspin said. "Tonight's unilateral action in no way diminishes U.S. support for coalition action or for the authority of the United Nations."

Bush -- at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine -- was terse when reached by the Associated Press. "I'm not in the interview business, but thank you very much for calling," he said.

Administration sources said Bush's friend and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was kept apprised of the investigation, and Clinton called Bush minutes after the attack was launched to give him the news. Secretary of State Warren Christopher flew to Kennebunkport yesterday to brief the former president.

Clinton relied heavily on evidence found by FBI bomb experts linking the Iraqi Intelligence Service to a 175-pound car bomb found April 14 in Kuwait City. According to senior intelligence and law enforcement officials, key pieces of the bomb -- including the remote-control detonator, the plastic explosives, the electronic circuitry and the wiring -- bore an overwhelming resemblance to components of bombs previously recovered from the Iraqis.

The White House press office distributed photographs of circuit boards and detonators taken from earlier Iraqi bombs, alongside photos of the same elements from the bomb meant for Bush. Even to the untrained eye, there were clear similarities.

"Certain aspects of these devices have been found only in devices linked to Iraq," an intelligence official said.

Clinton also had the confessions of the two alleged leaders of the 16 suspects arrested by Kuwait when the plot was uncovered. Both are Iraqi nationals. Ra'ad Asadi and Wali Abdelhadi Ghazali told FBI investigators detailed to Kuwait that they met in Basra, Iraq, on April 12 with "individuals they believed to be associated with the Iraqi Intelligence Service," according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.

They were given a vehicle loaded with hidden explosives. Ghazali told the FBI he was recruited specifically to kill Bush. Asadi also told the FBI he was to guide the car bomb, driven by his partner, to Kuwait University, where Bush was to be honored by the Emir of Kuwait for his leadership in the gulf war.

Administration officials said the suspects told the FBI that the bomb was to be parked near the motorcade route. From a vantage point 300 to 500 yards away, Ghazali would set off the bomb using a remote control. FBI bomb specialists estimated the bomb would have been lethal for nearly a quarter-mile.

FBI agents were told if the remote control device failed, the bomb was to be detonated by a timing device on a street in Kuwait City named for Bush. They were also told that Ghazali had a "bomb belt" he would use if all else failed; he was to wear it, approach Bush and blow them both up.

There have been reports that the suspects held in Kuwait have been tortured by Kuwaiti officials, but a senior law enforcement official said last night that FBI agents "believe they were not." Nevertheless, the official said, confessions are often unreliable, which is why the investigators placed "an especially great emphasis" on the conclusions of the bomb experts.

The CIA recalled that, after the gulf war, Saddam was heard on official Iraq media promising to hunt down and punish Bush, even after he left office. A senior intelligence official said the CIA also had classified evidence proving that the car bomb was meant for Bush, from Saddam.

"We could not and have not let such action against our nation go unanswered," Clinton said in his televised address. "From the first days of our revolution, America's security has depended on the clarity of this message: Don't tread on us."

Clinton had criticized the Iraqi regime on Friday for failing to allow continuous monitoring of its missile test sites by the United Nations. The monitoring was accepted by Baghdad at the end of the 1991 gulf war, as part of a series of agreements meant to strip Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

But U.S. officials did not cite that dispute in explaining the action last night, and U.S. warplanes involved in policing U.N. sanctions against Iraq did not take part.

Congressional leaders from both parties supported Clinton's action. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) called the president from Charleston, W.Va., to give a thumbs-up. "I think it was a good thing. I support it. If I can help, let me know," Dole told Clinton, according to a CNN interview.

The U.S. attack was initiated at 4:22 p.m. (EDT), when two ships -- the destroyer USS Peterson in the Red Sea and the cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Persian Gulf -- began firing a total of 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Iraqi Intelligence Service headquarters complex in downtown Baghdad.

The missiles, which each cost an estimated $1.1 million, typically fly 50 to 100 feet above the ground and navigate by radar according to detailed maps stored in onboard computers. Each missile was capable of carrying up to 1,000 pounds of conventional explosives on their flight to Baghdad of up to two hours.

Officials said the number of missiles was set after detailed analysis of what would be needed to ruin the complex. Navy officials programmed most of the missiles to hit specific aim-points at a building near the center, which Aspin called the "hub of . . . operational planning, interrogations, communication, and computer operations" for the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell told reporters at the Pentagon last night that a detailed assessment of the damage was not immediately available. But Powell said he had "preliminary information that a large number of them impacted where they were supposed to."

Officials made clear that no further military action was planned and warned Iraq not to retaliate. Powell said the Navy had moved several ships closer to Iraq so the United States could respond to any Iraqi retaliation.

An aerial picture of the principal targeted building, shown to reporters at the Pentagon last night, showed a large, six-story structure with three wings located off the central corridors. Four satellite dishes sat atop the building's roof.

Nearby were various buildings labeled as administrative, housing and support offices or vehicle storage sheds, and the entire complex -- roughly a football field in length -- was surrounded by a wall. U.S. officials cited the complex's isolation and the fact that the attack was timed to occur during Baghdad's nighttime as factors that would reduce the number of innocent casualties.

Powell and Aspin declined to say how many people were expected to be in the complex but said a portion of it functioned around the clock. The attack was not expected to "take down the entire complex," Powell said, but to ruin Iraq's ability to continue using it.

He noted that the complex was attacked and damaged once before by the United States, during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm bombing campaign aimed at pressuring Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait. But Iraq had since rebuilt the headquarters.

Aspin said the Iraqi Intelligence Service is the country's largest such agency and was responsible for providing security for Saddam's regime, repressing internal opposition, collecting foreign intelligence and conducting terrorist operations abroad, including the planned assassination attempt.

Asked to explain why the United States picked that target and did not go after Saddam himself, Aspin said, "It's very difficult to target a single individual. It's very difficult to capture a single individual. Dropping bombs on the hope that you're going to get a single individual is a very, very demanding task."

Aspin said, "What we're doing is sending a message against the people who were responsible for planning this operation. . . . {If} anybody asks the same people to do it again, they will remember this message."

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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