The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Iraq Time Line

 

U.S. Launches More Cruise Missiles Against Iraq

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 4 1996; Page A01

The United States fired a second volley of cruise missiles against air defenses in southern Iraq last night, less than 24 hours after launching a first round and declaring it would enlarge the area south of Baghdad barred to flights by Iraqi military aircraft.

The second launch of 17 missiles, shot from three surface ships and a submarine in the Persian Gulf, was necessary to ensure elimination of radar sites and antiaircraft missile launchers after damage assessment reports on the first strike were inconclusive, officials said.

"This is what we would call a mop-up operation," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters. "It's an effort to go in and assure we've done everything possible to suppress air defenses before we start enforcing the expanded `no-fly' zone" starting at noon today.

In a statement from the White House earlier yesterday after the initial attack, President Clinton said the unilateral U.S. action was intended to "make Saddam pay a price" for his military drive north into Kurdish territory over the weekend. But the fact that the missile strikes and expansion of the southern no-fly zone were far away from the Kurdish conflict spoke to a larger purpose -- what Clinton said was "reducing [Saddam's] ability to threaten his neighbors and America's interests."

Saddam responded defiantly, urging his air force and antiaircraft gunners to attack U.S. and allied planes as they begin policing the expanded air exclusion zone today. Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, charged that Washington had no legal justification for the attacks, saying that Iraqi troops already had withdrawn from around the Kurdish city of Irbil and that U.S. intelligence reports to the contrary were "disinformation."

Administration officials yesterday acknowledged a reluctance to intervene in the northern dispute between Kurdish factions -- one of which had invited Iraqi assistance -- and said they chose to focus instead on shoring up U.S. dominance of the skies south of Baghdad. The officials said expansion of the exclusion zone was designed to undercut Saddam's ability to train his air force and muster an invasion force that might again threaten Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, although existing international constraints on Iraq had contained such threats since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Clinton, who authorized the second missile strike yesterday afternoon, told a gathering of the National Guard Association of the United States last night that he had moved against Iraq to avoid being drawn into a possibly broader conflict with Saddam.

"We know that if we do not pursue this policy," Clinton said, "we might again be called upon to do more, as we were in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm," referring to the war. "We do not want that to happen and therefore I did what I did today."

Before the attacks, the administration had sought backing from key allies such as Saudi Arabia and France. But those countries were reluctant yesterday to be seen backing military action against Iraq, whether for the larger strategic purpose or as punishment for the incursion into Kurdish territory.

At the same time, Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole, who over the weekend seized on the latest Iraqi crisis to criticize Clinton's foreign policy leadership as weak, yesterday supported the military mission, but urged even tougher actions.

Dole called for forcing Iraqi withdrawal from northern Iraq, the release of Kurdish prisoners, and a halt to interference with the Kurds by not only Iraq but Iran, which is backing the other Kurdish faction.

Administration officials reported no essential change in the deployment of Iraqi forces in northern Iraq. Armored units have withdrawn from Irbil, the main Kurdish city that Iraqi troops seized Saturday, ousting Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the name of Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. But numerous tanks and other armored vehicles remained well beyond where they were before the assault, U.S. officials said.

Other Iraqi units are concentrated on the main roads to Suleymaniyah, another Talabani stronghold, where U.S. officials suspect Saddam is biding his time and possibly planning another attack.

In a satellite interview with CNN, Iraq's Aziz called those suspicions "baseless, totally baseless."

U.S. defense officials offered few details about the damage done by the first round of 27 missiles, fired from two Navy ships and two B-52 bombers at air defense radars, surface-to-air missile installations and command centers covering 14 different sites in the expanded area of the no-fly zone. Officials said cloud cover over Iraq had inhibited satellite imagery.

But some photos suggested only partial damage. One radar site, for instance, had its top blown off but was still functioning. At another site, an antiaircraft missile was destroyed but its launcher was left intact, according to military officials.

Last night's volley was aimed at about half the number of targets in the original set, including radar facilities and antiaircraft missiles but not control centers or communication links, military sources said.

Iraq claimed the first attack killed five people and injured 19. Pentagon spokesman Bacon did not dispute the fatality figure but rejected claims by Iraqi officials that one missile struck a housing complex. Baghdad television showed the flat concrete roof of the one-story house caved in by the explosion, saying the building was in one of the residential quarters of Baghdad.

"We have no indication that that happened," said Bacon.

Yesterday's attack was the biggest U.S. strike against Iraq since 1993, when two dozen missiles destroyed an Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in response to an alleged assassination plot against former president George Bush while he was on a visit to Kuwait.

But missing from public U.S. statements yesterday was a clear statement of what the administration is demanding Saddam do next to avoid more military retaliation. Administration officials said they have purposefully avoided setting forth specific criteria, such as demanding withdrawal of Saddam's assault force from northern Iraq.

"If you make going back to the original lines the issue, you're asking for an endless debate over whether he's done so or not," a senior official said.

Similarly, Clinton selected targets south of Baghdad, rather than in the north where the transgressions occurred, because "we wanted to play this game on our field, with targets of our choosing," said a State Department official. "We didn't want to let [Saddam] define the terms of the game."

Officials said Saddam's history of multiple, repeated violations of U.N. resolutions and international law led them to conclude they had to beef up their ability to constrain Iraqi behavior. By expanding the southern no-fly zone one degree -- from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel, a distance of about 70 miles -- officials said Saddam will be deprived of two major air force training areas and use of about 40 percent of the air defense capability that existed in the greater Baghdad area.

"This will substantially weaken Saddam Hussein's ability to pursue military adventures in the south, and additionally, will weaken his ability to maintain an air force capable of projecting power in any direction," Defense Secretary William J. Perry said at a Pentagon briefing.

Perry said U.S. interests "are not tied to which party prevails" in the Kurdish conflict but rather in maintaining stability in the region by protecting such "friendly nations" as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel and ensuring the flow of oil.

"The plan does not involve the United States in the conflict underway in Iraq, but it does make Saddam Hussein pay a price for his aggression and it does position coalition forces to more effectively deter any further military adventures," Perry said.

In his statement from the Oval Office, Clinton said: "We must make it clear that reckless acts have consequences, or those acts will increase. We must reduce Iraq's ability to strike out at its neighbors, and we must increase America's ability to contain Iraq over the long run."

World reaction to the U.S. action was mixed. Britain, Germany, Canada and Japan expressed general support for the raid. But France and Spain said the United States had acted too hastily or should have sought a political solution. Russia denounced the initiative.

Clinton declared himself "satisfied" with the allied response but struggled for an answer when asked why the gulf war allies were not all supportive of the action. He said that historically the United States takes the lead in such matters, suggesting the reaction of other countries might be limited by their own domestic political concerns.

By expanding the no-fly zone, the United States also has expanded its policing commitment, which it shares with Britain and France. A senior administration official said France had not yet stated whether it would help enforce the wider zone. "We're assuming this will clarify itself in practical terms," the official said.

Saudi Arabia, on whose soil many of the enforcing allied aircraft are based, has agreed to the expansion. But the Saudis declined to allow use in yesterday's attack of the U.S. Air Force jet fighters, AWACS air control planes and refueling tankers situated on its territory, limiting the options open to the United States essentially to cruise missiles, military officials said.

Cruise missiles navigate to targets with the help of satellite-linked guidance systems and have the advantage over manned aircraft of eliminating the risk of killed or captured pilots. But some administration officials had hoped to employ some Saudi-based aircraft, if only as a show of greater international solidarity.

Only Britain assisted in the first air attack by authorizing U.S. tankers to operate out of the island of Diego Garcia and refuel the B-52s, which flew round-trip from the Pacific island of Guam on a 19-hour mission. The B-52s, escorted by Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters, shot 13 cruise missiles; the two Navy ships -- the destroyer USS Laboon out of Norfolk and the cruiser USS Shiloh from San Diego -- launched 14.

The strategy of taking out additional Iraqi air defense facilities and expanding the southern no-fly zone was developed in Washington, before U.S. officials sought allied support for action against Iraq, administration officials said. Indeed, some administration members who deal regularly with Iraq had been looking for an opportunity to implement just such measures, senior officials said.

Significantly, Clinton and other administration leaders said little yesterday about the future of the separate no-fly zone in the north, whose 36th parallel boundary Iraqi ground forces crossed Saturday storming into Irbil. While the southern zone was set up in the wake of the war ostensibly to protect Iraq's large Shiite population from repression, the northern zone was established to shield the Kurds.

In addition to the missile strike and expansion of the southern no-fly zone, Clinton said a deal worked out last summer under United Nations auspices, allowing Iraq to sell some of its embargoed oil to raise funds for humanitarian supplies, could not go forward "until we are sure these humanitarian supplies can actually get to those who need them." U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suspended the program over the weekend.

Congressional response to the administration's actions was supportive, with members of both parties rallying behind Clinton's efforts, although some Republicans faulted the administration for not moving sooner or more forcefully.

Staff writers Peter Baker, Helen Dewar and Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar