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TIME On Politics

How The Attack On Iraq Is Planned

The bombs will hit Saddam hard, but they probably won't kill him or end his drive for bioweapons

By Bruce W. Nelan

TIME magazine

(TIME, February 23) -- Inside Operation Desert Storm, the military juggernaut that freed Kuwait in 1991, was a small, secret operation all its own: an effort to kill Saddam Hussein. Of the 40,000 U.S. air attacks during the Gulf War, about 40 were aimed at the Iraqi leader's headquarters, residences, command bunkers and buildings he was expected to visit. Pentagon lawyers had ruled that Saddam was a legal target because he was considered a wartime military commander. But in the end it didn't matter. Saddam and his entire family came through without a scratch.

Saddam was, and is, too elusive to kill. During the Gulf War he stayed off the radio and telephone to avoid being pinpointed by signal intercepts, and he dispatched his orders and speeches on tape. Even now he moves two doubles around to mislead potential assassins. Intelligence sources tell TIME that Saddam has his bodyguards pick six homes where he might sleep. At the last minute he chooses his resting place, making sure it's never the same spot two nights in a row. Sometimes he spends the night in a well-guarded van pulled into the bushes at the side of a remote road.

This time, if and when Operation Desert Thunder is launched against Iraq, the Pentagon says it doesn't plan to target Saddam. The operation's bombing campaign, scheduled to go on for about a week, would drop most of its bombs and cruise missiles on four sets of targets: first, Iraq's air-defense network and the command centers that wire it together; second, the buildings and bunkers that allied intelligence has linked with the production of biological and chemical weapons; third, support facilities for poison-gas production, including some of the "presidential palaces" and the Republican Guard units that protect them; and fourth, military forces and weaponry that Saddam could use to attack his neighbors.

On the eve of what is shaping up as the biggest combat operation of his presidency, Bill Clinton has begun to alter his private and public posture in ways that suggest war is just around the corner. He has been on the phone to as many as three foreign Presidents a day pleading for support. The Pentagon has been freely releasing sensitive information on its deployments to the gulf, hoping the show of force will scare Saddam into backing down. The CIA director, George Tenet, briefs Clinton daily on how the Iraqi dictator is hiding military equipment to escape damage from bombardment. This week, following closely in George Bush's Desert Storm footsteps, Clinton travels to the Pentagon for a final review of the targets.

In recent days, Clinton and his advisers have become much more candid--and realistic--about their goals: the White House realizes that air attacks probably won't topple Saddam or force him to open his doors to unrestricted access by U.N. inspectors. So Clinton and his aides have fallen back to a more limited strategy: chip away at Saddam's ability to make horror weapons, delay the day Saddam is able use them against neighbors, and then do it again after 12 months, if necessary. That way, the Administration can hail almost any damage to Iraqi targets as a success.

No one expects the operation to be bloodless. The White House has begun preparing Americans for unpleasant pictures from Baghdad and less-than-perfect results from the battlefield. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger were scheduled to hold a town meeting in Columbus, Ohio, this week on the military operation. General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week went out of his way to prepare the public for the death of some U.S. servicemen. "The truth is, war is a dirty thing," he said.

The first hint to Saddam that the sky is falling again will come in the darkest hour of the night. He'll hear the whine of dozens of titanium-clad cruise missiles as they arrive in Baghdad from U.S. warships and submarines in the Persian Gulf and perhaps from giant B-52 bombers lumbering in from their Indian Ocean base on Diego Garcia. The cruise missiles will come crashing through the windows and walls of Iraq's main military command-and-communications centers. Over the crump and flame of those explosions will sound the roar of low-flying F-117 stealth attack planes as they swoop undetected over air-defense centers--the computer-filled offices that direct missile fire against airborne attackers--drilling their targets with 2,000-lb. laser-guided bombs.

The sky will not be safe for unstealthy planes until Iraq's antiaircraft-missile batteries are destroyed. That assignment is in the hands of electronic-warfare planes like the Air Force's EF-111 Ravens and F-16CJs and the Navy's EA-6B Prowlers, which will fly in behind the F-117s. Their jammers blank out ground-based radar and computer screens, and some of them let fly with HARM missiles, which home in on and destroy radar installations, leaving antiaircraft missiles at the site blind and useless.

This far-flung air battle will be directed by Air Force E-3 AWACS and Navy E-2 Hawkeye planes, the controllers aboard them squinting at radar screens tracking friendly and enemy planes in all directions. They will also be receiving up-to-the-minute data on Iraqi positions on the ground from the Navy's ES-3A Shadow jet, hovering just south of the Iraqi border, which will electronically vacuum up radio transmissions from Saddam's forces. The Shadow squadron's motto: In God We Trust--All Others We Monitor.

Once the Iraqi surface-to-air missiles are out of commission, F-15 Eagles and F-14 Tomcats will move in at high altitude to guard against any threat from hostile planes. Below them the attack planes, F/A-18 Hornets, F-16 Fighting Falcons and British Tornados will swarm in to bomb the buildings and bunkers that have been linked to the production of biological and chemical weapons and missiles, and to units of Saddam's elite Republican Guard. B-52s, which can carry 20 times the bomb load of a carrier-based Hornet, will unload on Republican Guard bases.

In the span of a week U.S. and British forces will be able to carry out about 1,000 air attacks--only a small percentage of the number launched during Desert Storm, and affecting a fraction of the potential targets available. But the U.S. is sure that its weapons and intelligence are much better this time. Pentagon sources tell TIME that U.S. warplanes patrolling the southern no-fly zone over the past three months have been practicing bombing runs on targets that top brass figured they might someday have to attack.

If everything is so high tech and ready to fly, why hasn't Clinton given the order? In part because military force can do some things and not others. "If we are given the execute order," says a senior officer on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, "we'll execute well. I just don't think anybody believes these results are going to be particularly satisfying."

Then there are the worrying and very tangible costs the U.S. will have to pay if it bombs Iraq. Because many of the key targets in urban areas and elsewhere will be packed with "human shields," the attacks will kill civilians, including women and children. Saddam will lose no time laying out their bodies for the world's press to photograph. The Arab world is already disapproving, and could explode into anti-American demonstrations once the bloody corpses appear on television.

Washington's relations with its allies and hoped-for collaborators would be damaged. Turkey, France, China and Japan are already put out about not being consulted fully or, it seems to them, taken seriously when they question the need to use force against Iraq. U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson was scheduled to be in Tokyo this week explaining the U.S. position, but Japan's U.N. ambassador, Hisashi Owada, is still miffed because Richardson neglected to tell him he was planning the trip. Apparently, Richardson's diplomacy doesn't include talking to Iraq's representatives in the U.S. Baghdad's U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, says he hasn't met once with Richardson since the latter took over the U.S. mission to the U.N. last February.

U.S. ties with Russia are turning very sour. Cohen, in Moscow last week to try to calm things down, was greeted by an angry Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who denounced U.S. policy to Cohen's face and in front of a group of reporters. Sergeyev told Cohen that America's "rigid and uncompromising" position could lead to instability and unforeseen consequences. Cohen replied that the "so-called compromises" Russia has proposed do nothing to solve the problem of Saddam. Cohen went on to ask about reports, first published by the Washington Post, that Russia had offered to sell Iraq machinery that could be used to produce bioweapons and that Russians working as U.N. inspectors had been passing secrets to the Iraqis. (The first Russian to join a U.N. inspection team was a former KGB station chief.) Moscow denied it all.

Can Operation Desert Thunder be stopped? Perhaps. Saddam might play his cheat-and-retreat game again, promising to open all sites in Iraq to unconditional inspection, and then throw up new roadblocks in a month or two. Or he can refuse to yield and take his punishment, emerging after a week to wave his taunting wave and fire his pistol into the air. He will probably then kick all the inspectors out and demand an end to sanctions on the cynical grounds that Iraqis have suffered enough.

At that point he would also feel free to get back to the business of producing the weapons and missiles he obviously yearns for. Then what? If he does that, Cohen and Albright say, the U.S. would respond with still another air attack. It is hard to tell whether they are serious or bluffing. But if Operation Desert Thunder is so hard to sell and so likely to be costly, its sequel may be doubly so.

--Reported by William Dowell/U.N., Johanna McGeary/Amman and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 23, 1998

How The Attack On Iraq Is Planned
Turning Up The Heat
Washington Diary: Should A Mom Rat On Her Daughter?
Could Clinton Still Settle With Jones?
The Man Who Would Be Judge
Notebook: Beltway Bungles





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