WASHINGTON – After a year of military threats, the United States launched a prolonged attack on Iraq, unleashing more than 200 cruise missiles as punishment for Baghdad’s refusal to allow the destruction of its chemical and biological weapons.
President Clinton, speaking to the nation about an hour after the 4 p.m. CST attacks on military installations and sites suspected of containing weapons, said the United States was “delivering a powerful message to Saddam: If you act recklessly, you will pay a heavy price.”
The attacks, mounted by the United States and Britain, came in a wave of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors,” Clinton said. “Saddam has failed to seize the chance.
“And so we had to act and act now.”
In Baghdad, witnesses and officials said at least one missile fell on an area near Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s biggest palace there.
At least two people were killed and 30 were injured, a doctor said. Iraqi gunners fired volleys of anti-aircraft flak over the capital as explosions flared in today’s early darkness during the U.S.-British airstrikes. Saddam urged Iraqis to “fight the enemies of God, enemies of the nation, enemies of humanity. ”
He said “several targets” were hit, in a statement carried by the official Iraqi News Agency. Dr. Hazim el-Nasri, head of the Aliyarmouk Hospital, said two people were killed and more than 30 were injured, suffering mostly burns on the face, hands and legs.
However, no authoritative account of the damage caused by the strikes was available.
Along with the anti-aircraft fire, at least two large explosions were heard, and foreign TV transmissions showed a huge fiery glow on the horizon. Smoke could be seen trailing into the dark sky in the distance.
Explosions continued into the pre-dawn hours, stopping briefly before morning chants calling Muslims to prayer wailed from the city’s mosques. In Karada, a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood, a missile strike burst water mains, flooding a 11/2-mile stretch.
Workers were seen trying to plug the bubbling pipe. Karada is across the Tigris River from the Old Presidential Complex in central Baghdad. It was not clear if the palace was damaged. Saddam’s whereabouts also was not known.
Operation Desert Fox, as the Pentagon named the assault, is expected to last up to four days. It involves American and British aircraft and U.S. warships. The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, had concluded that Iraq failed to keep its November pledge to cooperate with inspections that began after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, where the Security Council met to discuss the crisis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed regret last night that the confrontation over weapons inspections had escalated into violence. Russia and France challenged the need for the bombing raids and urged restraint.
Germany’s new Social Democratic government regretted that military action had been required but said Iraq had been warned that “the international community could not look away.”
Moscow and Beijing said they deplored the attacks. Paris was far from supportive.
Clinton called back attack planes last month after Saddam vowed to comply with U.N. inspectors. The president said he made clear “that if Saddam failed to cooperate fully, we would be prepared to act without delay, diplomacy or warning.”
Clinton said his national security advisers and America’s allies concluded that now was the time to strike, despite the House of Representatives’ intention to begin debating his impeachment today. The element of surprise was important, he said.
But the United States also did not want to strike during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, which begins this weekend. Waiting until after Ramadan would have “given Iraq a month’s head start,” Clinton said.
Initiating a military strike during Ramadan would have damaged relations with Arab nations in the region, he said. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the attacks were not designed to “get Saddam Hussein.” But she said the United States will step up its contacts with opposition groups and “work with them in a sustained way.”
“It looks like the United States is determined to go for a military strike regardless of what the Security Council membership feel about it,” Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, said before the attack. “We reserve our rights to whatever retaliation, whatever self-defense measures that we’re going to take.”
Former President Bush, who presided over the 1991 gulf war against Iraq, issued a statement from his Houston office saying he supports Clinton’s action “as long as one American military airman, seaman or soldier is in harm’s way. ”
It said Vice President Al Gore had called to brief Bush on the decision. Gore also called former Presidents Carter and Ford. Eight Navy ships, equipped with about 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, loaded with tactical aircraft, have been in the Persian Gulf since the confrontation last month.
The missiles were likely preprogrammed to hit targets in Iraq, said a high-ranking military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. It was not immediately clear what the targets were, but senior military officials in the past have identified key military units and sites suspected of hiding weapons.
Military planners have identified about 300 sites, primarily buildings, within Iraq that are suspected of being part of the weapons program banned after the gulf war.
Other sites include Republican Guard units and Special Republican Guard units, which are believed to be involved in controlling Iraq’s weapons program. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon is sending 60 more combat aircraft to the gulf region, including fighters, bombers and F-117 stealth planes.
He said more ground troops also will go to bolster the 22 Navy ships, 201 aircraft and 24,100 military personnel in the region.
Unlike previous confrontations with Baghdad, which have built slowly through defiance of U.N. weapons inspections, this one blew up suddenly. Yesterday, Clinton administration officials reacted to a harshly critical U.N. assessment of Iraq’s cooperation in uncovering suspected chemical, biological and missile programs.
“There is no end in sight for this pattern of obfuscation, obstruction and outright violation,” State Department spokesman James Rubin said hours before the strikes. “We can find no grounds for optimism that the Iraqi leadership, if left to its own devices, will suddenly change course and opt for cooperation in the new year or, if it remains in power, in the new millennium.”
Citing Butler’s Tuesday report, Rubin noted that Iraq barred inspectors last week from the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the report raised “serious concern about Iraq’s willingness and ability to comply with the commitments they made in mid-November.”
Senior Clinton administration officials said the military action will likely leave the United States with little ability to monitor Iraq closely. The attacks, they said, will almost certainly mean the end of the 7-year-old U.N. weapons inspection program in Iraq and will force the United States to maintain a large military presence in the gulf region for at least several more years.
Clinton met with top national security advisers for 35 minutes at the White House yesterday morning. Within the administration, senior military leaders argued that the United States should strike because Iraq had clearly broken promises to cooperate with weapons inspections and because the United States was marshaling a large force in the region.
A second aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, headed toward the region to reinforce the Enterprise. The president’s domestic political trouble posed the biggest obstacle to a U.S. strike. As word spread that an attack was possible,
Democratic and Republican leaders in the House discussed postponing the impeachment vote. After the announcement, some Republicans criticized the timing of the attack.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “Both the timing and the policy are subject to question.”
House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston, R-La., said House Republicans support U.S. troops in the gulf and will leave it to the American people to decide whether the timing was influenced by the impeachment debate.
Late yesterday, Clinton dispatched Cohen and other senior military officials to meet with members of Congress. A District of Columbia police official said security had been increased at “critical installations” such as embassies. U.S. surveillance by satellites and aircraft showed that Iraqi military units were only partly prepared for an attack, according to the top-ranking official.
Anti-aircraft units had yet to disperse early yesterday and Republican Guard divisions were stationed just outside their bases, said the official.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, addressing his nation last night, said there was “no realistic alternative to military force. … We act because we must.” Britain has 12 Tornado fighter-bombers in Kuwait and six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft in Saudi Arabia. It also has four Jaguar fighter-bombers at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, near the Iraqi border, along with one VC-10 refueling tanker aircraft in Turkey and two VC-10s in Bahrain.
In the Persian Gulf, it has a frigate and one supply ship. U.S. cruise missiles could be followed by manned aircraft strikes, another top-ranking official said. Navy and Air Force aircraft in the region, however, would have to curtail daylight raids until Iraq’s air defense system is destroyed. Radar-seeking HARM missiles from F-16 fighters and some carrier-based aircraft would be used to destroy anti-aircraft radars, the official said.
By Michael D. Towle and Richard Parker
Copyright 1998 Star-Telegram, Inc.
December 17, 1998
Edition: FINAL AM Section: NEWS Page: 1