Global Policy Forum

Strike Aims to Cripple Weapons Centers


By Philip Shenon

The New York Times
December 17, 1998

Senior Clinton administration officials say that the air strikes ordered Wednesday against Iraq, the largest and most punishing since the 1991 Gulf War, will likely leave the United States with little ability to closely monitor Iraq's capability to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The attack, 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.

While senior U.S. officials insisted that the air strikes would significantly hamper Iraq's programs to make poison gas and nuclear weapons, they readily acknowledged that the weapons programs would continue and perhaps accelerate after the bombing ends.

Without the U.N. inspection program, they said, the Clinton administration would have only a limited ability to determine whether Iraq is manufacturing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction -- and to prevent Iraq from threatening its neighbors with poison gas.

The United States, they said, will need to leave a large military force in the region for the foreseeable future at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars a year, ready to strike whenever U.S. intelligence agencies develop evidence from aerial surveillance to show that the Iraqis are close to deploying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"It's a very unpalatable scenario for the U.S.," said a Pentagon official. "We can keep track of some of what's going on the ground with satellites and surveillance planes. But that's not the same as having inspectors on the ground, poking around or at least trying to poke around Iraqi installations."

In his speech Wednesday night, President Clinton warned ominously that "without a strong inspection system, Iraq would be free to retain and begin to rebuild its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in months -- not years."

Officials concede that the only other tools left to the United States in containing Iraq are economic sanctions, which the Clinton administration has struggled to keep in place over the opposition of Russia, France and other nations, and support for the ragtag Iraqi opposition movement, which has yet to prove that it can mount a serious challenge to the authority of President Saddam Hussein.

Clinton has already acknowledged that a military strike like the one launched Wednesday would sound the death knell for the weapons inspections that have been carried out in Iraq by the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM.

When he called off air strikes on Iraq last month, Clinton said then that he had made the decision in part because he believed such an attack "would mean the end of UNSCOM" and "we would then have no oversight, no insight, no involvement in what is going on in Iraq."

Wednesday, with air strikes against Iraq underway, senior administration officials said they believed and feared that the Unscom inspection program was dead, as the president had predicted.

"After this, it's hard to imagine that Saddam will ever allow the inspectors back in," said one U.S. official. "So what is our policy? What do we do in a post-UNSCOM world? I don't know."

While refusing to provide full details on the weapons fired against Iraq and the number of U.S. warplanes and ships that joined in the mission, administration officials said Wednesday's attack was several times larger than any strike launched against Iraq since the Gulf War.

"The others were pinpricks by comparison," one official said. ''It's smaller than the war but much bigger than anything else."

In June 1993, the United States fired 23 cruise missiles at Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged plot to assassinate former President Bush. In September 1996, 27 cruise missiles were launched against military targets in southern Iraq in retaliation for the movement of Iraqi troops against Kurds in northern Iraq.

U.S. officials said that they have had target lists for the attack ready since last month, when the United States initially planned to launch air strikes against Iraq over its refusal to allow unfettered weapons inspections by UNSCOM.

The target list, they said, included a variety of factories, warehouses and military compounds identified by the U.N. inspectors as potential sites for the manufacture or stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, some of them in Baghdad or on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.

A senior adminstration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the United States hoped in this evening's missile attacks to destroy several buildings and other structures across Iraq identified by Unscom and U.S. intelligence agencies as part of the Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

But even if the missile attacks are a success and all of the buildings are destroyed, he noted, the Iraqi government will still employ scores of scientists with an expertise in the ability to manufacture chemical or biological weapons. "And it's not as if you need a sophisticiated factory to make poison gas," he added. "For some of these weapons, all you need is a bathtub and a few hours' time."


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