The Difference Was in the Details
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page B1 When U.S. bombs and missiles fell on Iraq on the evening of Dec. 16, one of their principal targets was Saddam Hussein's sleeping quarters on the outskirts of Baghdad. But that was only one of the sites on the military's list of places to bomb in the sprawling Radwaniyah complex adjacent to the now-vacant Saddam International Airport.
The targeting list was stunning in its specificity. Bombs were dropped on separate buildings that house secret units of the infamous Special Security Organization (SSO) and the Special Republican Guards (SRG), including the barracks of the 5th Battalion of the 1st Brigade, the 8th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, the 3rd Artillery Battalion, and the 1st Armored Battalion of the 4th Brigade.
Thanks to the hard work of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), U.S. targeters know a lot more about the Iraqi regime today than they did during the Gulf War in 1991. The United States and Britain now have a diagrammatic understanding of the Iraqi government structure, as well as of the intelligence, security and transport organizations that protect the Iraqi leadership. The same mission folders that UNSCOM put together to inspect specific buildings and offices in its search for concealed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) became the basis for the targeting folders that missile launchers and pilots used in December.
Welcome to the true Operation Desert Fox.
It is clear from the target list, and from extensive communications with almost a dozen officers and analysts knowledgeable about Desert Fox planning, that the U.S.-British bombing campaign was more than a reflexive reaction to Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with UNSCOM's inspectors. The official rationale for Desert Fox may remain the "degrading" of Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and the "diminishing" of the Iraqi threat to its neighbors. But careful study of the target list tells another story.
Thirty-five of the 100 targets were selected because of their role in Iraq's air defense system, an essential first step in any air war, because damage to those sites paves the way for other forces and minimizes casualties all around. Only 13 targets on the list are facilities associated with chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles, and three are southern Republican Guard bases that might be involved in a repeat invasion of Kuwait.
The heart of the Desert Fox list (49 of the 100 targets) is the Iraqi regime itself: a half-dozen palace strongholds and their supporting cast of secret police, guard and transport organizations. Some sites, such as Radwaniyah, had been bombed in 1991 (Saddam's quarters there were designated "L01" in Desert Storm, meaning the first target in the Leadership category). Other sites, particularly "special" barracks and units in and around downtown Baghdad and the outlying palaces, were bombed for the first time.
National security insiders, blessed with their unprecedented intelligence bonanza from UNSCOM, convinced themselves that bombing Saddam Hussein's internal apparatus would drive the Iraqi leader around the bend. "We've penetrated your security, we're inside your brain," is the way one senior administration official described the message that the United States was sending Saddam Hussein.
Without the target list, such a view seems like sheer bravado. With the target list, a host of new questions arises: Is the administration's view of Saddam Hussein's hold on power in line with reality? And what is the feasibility, not to mention the legality, of what amounts to an aerial assassination strategy?
The origins of the Desert Fox target list go back to October, when high-level discussions in Washington led to the conclusion that military action was not only inevitable, but that it might actually achieve something. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), headquartered in Tampa, began to articulate the military mission of "degrading" and "diminishing" Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Gen. Anthony Zinni, the CENTCOM commander, insisted that the United States only bomb Iraqi sites that had been identified with a high degree of certainty, according to officers involved in the process.
Given the UNSCOM data flowing in, there was no end of choices. Seven broad target categories were created, including two "WMD security" and "command and control" that would accommodate the new intelligence reports and cover an effort to shake the Iraqi regime to its core.
By November, a plan was in place. WMD targets themselves were small in number, given Zinni's directive. The main emphasis would be on Iraq's short-range missile program. The Bush administration had acceded to a Soviet proposal in 1991 to allow Iraq to have missiles with a range under 150 kilometers. U.S. intelligence had concluded that Iraq was using the short-range facilities as a cover for redeveloping long-range missiles.
All of the suspected facilities Ibn al Haytham, Karama, Al Kindi in Mosul, Shahiyat, Taji and Zaafaraniyah were under UNSCOM camera monitoring. In fact, UNSCOM had cataloged specific pieces of irreplaceable equipment that, if destroyed, would set back any conversion effort.
There were non-missile WMD targets as well: the Biological Research Center at Baghdad University, which UNSCOM concluded was the office of the head of Iraq's biological weapons program ("Doctor Germ," they dubbed her), and two airfields Al Sahra near Tikrit and Tallil in the south which were believed to house drone aircraft that could deliver a biological cloud in an attack.
Some have criticized the Desert Fox campaign for not going after suspected production sites of biological or chemical agents. The common refrain is that the United States avoided such targets because of the potential for collateral damage, but this is not true. The targeters could not identify actual weapons sites with enough specificity to comply with Zinni's directive.
At a Pentagon briefing on Jan. 7, Zinni said the ease with which chemical and biological agents can be manufactured, particularly for terrorist type use, made bombing of potential dual-use facilities (such as pharmaceutical plants) futile. "There isn't going to be anything militarily" to eliminate or signficantly degrade those capabilities, he said, "if they're that easy to . . . establish."
Desert Fox's most significant departure from Desert Storm is its targeting of offices associated with Saddam Hussein's entourage and advisers, the Iraqi intelligence and Ba'ath party organizations, and the security and transport apparatus that is so essential for Saddam's survival. Many of these top-level targets were hit in 1991 (Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls them "highly visible symbols of the regime"), but the 1998 campaign locked in on sites not even known eight years ago. For example, the office of Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam Hussein's chief of staff, was attacked, albeit under the innocuous target name of "Secretariat Presidential Building." The SSO computer center as well as intelligence archives also were targeted. In 1991, only two installations associated with the protection of Saddam Hussein were hit. In Desert Fox, this group makes up 20 percent of the total of all targets.
Other targets also reflected the strategy to weaken the regime's control. Two corps and four division headquarters installations of the "regular" Republican Guards were hit, as were helicopter bases at Samarra East, K2 airfield near Baiji, Taji and Kut. Like the decision to allow short-range missiles, the United States was snookered into allowing Iraq the use of its helicopters after Desert Storm, and they were subsequently used to suppress the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions. The misstep has stuck in the U.S. craw ever since.
More than a dozen eavesdropping and jamming units, telephone exchanges, and radio and television transmitters were attacked in Baghdad, Basra and the south, Abu Ghraib, Rashidiya (just north of the capital) and Tikrit. Part of the goal of disrupting telephone and television service was to impede military communications and undermine Iraqi propaganda efforts. But attacking secret police archives and intelligence stations also has the purpose of disrupting Baghdad's ability to monitor the internal situation.
Desert Fox pleased many active and retired officers who played a role in the 1991 air war. These Desert Storm insiders say they feel vindicated by the administration's decision to target the Iraqi leadership. They felt they were unable to pursue Saddam Hussein in earnest in 1991, and argue that the United States and the world is still paying the price for Washington's hesitation at the time.
But there is also disquiet. "A good concept, but too little, too late," said one senior officer. Not only was Desert Fox constrained by time, breadth and the sheer physical destruction possible with 1,000 weapons, but a host of other priorities to minimize civilian deaths, prevent U.S. casualties and deflect political fallout undercut the overall goal.
According to military sources, there was no leeway in the strict timetable, and the decision to achieve surprise before Ramadan served to give Iraq a 30-day break. Attacks were mounted only at night, ceding daylight hours for recovery and dispersal. An Iraqi sanctuary existed above the 35th parallel. And certain targets were avoided altogether, such as electrical power sites, for fear of a cascading effect on the civilian population and negative publicity.
To administration officials, the plight of the Iraqi people is the only hot-button issue that could undermine their "topple" strategy. Saddam Hussein and his cronies have built installations and institutions to insulate themselves and their lives from Iraqi society at large. Saddam's guardians have been showered by extra pay and treatment. To inflict further harm on this privileged inner circle, CIA analysts added the Tikrit food warehouse and a distribution manifold on the Gulf coast south of the Basra refinery to the bombing list part of an "economic strangulation" plan to disrupt the illicit cash and rations pipeline.
Two pitiful targets to achieve that goal? More than anything else, it is the very precision and economy of Desert Fox that ultimately undermined its true purpose. "The Iraqis are professional cruise missile recipients," one recently retired four-star general observed in December as bulldozers and laborers arrived at bombed sites on the Monday after Desert Fox ended. With almost half the population unemployed, rebuilding is as close as anything to a national jobs program in Iraq.
CENTCOM estimates that it will take Iraq from one to two months to restore the smuggling operation from the Basra refinery. And then it will undoubtedly be bombed again.
William Arkin, an independent defense analyst, spent two months in Iraq after the Gulf War and has written extensively on Operation Desert Storm. His column, DOT.MIL, appears every other Monday on The Post's Web site, www.washingtonpost.com.
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