Issue in Depth: Attack on Iraq
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
ASHINGTON -- It is the year's other war. While the nation's attention has focused on Kosovo, American warplanes have quietly, methodically and with virtually no public discussion been attacking Iraq.
Over the past eight months, American and British pilots have fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 targets.
That is more than triple the targets attacked in four furious days of strikes in December that followed Iraq's expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors, an assault that provoked an international outrage.
By another measure, the pilots have flown some two-thirds as many missions as NATO pilots flew over Yugoslavia in 78 days of around-the-clock war there.
The strikes, including ones as recently as Tuesday, have done nothing to deter Iraqi gunners from firing on American and British planes patrolling the "no flight" zones over northern and southern Iraq. They, like officials in Baghdad, are acting as defiant as ever. And there appears to be no end in sight to the war -- to the surprise and chagrin of some administration and Pentagon officials.
The cycle of tit-for-tat skirmishes has gone on so long that the administration is debating whether to intensify its attacks, expanding the list of targets to include more significant military targets, from air defenses to things like bases and headquarters, as long as Iraq fires at American and British jets, according to senior Administration officials.
President Clinton has not made a decision, but within the administration, some hawkish officials have argued that broader, more punishing strikes would deter the Iraqis and do more to weaken President Saddam Hussein's government, the officials said. On the other hand, a tougher stand could also draw attention to strikes that have generated little opposition at home and abroad.
"Our use of force so far has not risen to a threshold to cause international concern," especially among Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, one senior official said. "Disproportionate responses might."
Overshadowed for much of the year by the war in the Balkans, the administration's policy toward Iraq is increasingly facing criticism.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of prominent senators and congressmen sent a letter to Clinton scolding him for what they called "the continued drift" in the administration's efforts.
While they expressed support for the strikes, they called on Clinton to give Iraq a new deadline to comply with U.N. inspections and threaten "serious consequences" if Saddam refuses, including more potent air strikes throughout Iraq and an expansion of the "no flight" zones. They also called for increased support, including military aid, to Iraqi opposition groups.
The letter was signed by the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi; Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Sam Brownback of Kansas, all Republicans; Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, both Democrats; Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
Administration and Pentagon officials defend their policy -- including the unending air strikes -- as a firm, but measured effort to isolate Saddam and weaken his armed forces.
They concede, however, that the Iraqis have proved more resilient than expected. They have quickly repaired damage done to air-defense weapons, forcing the Americans to bomb some targets over and over. They have even rebuilt some of the factories, barracks and other sites destroyed in December's raids, including buildings at the Al Taji missile complex, one of the critical targets, according to Defense officials.
Of greater concern is Iraq's ability to rebuild its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, programs that Saddam pledged to halt as part of the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf war in 1991. In their letter, the lawmakers said there was "considerable evidence" that Iraq continued to pursue those weapons, though neither they nor their aides elaborated.
The administration and Pentagon officials maintain there is no evidence of that, but without international inspections, some acknowledged, there is little to stop Saddam's government from doing so.
"I've very concerned," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who served as the chief American representative at the United Nations during last year's confrontation, told reporters on Wednesday. "My experience with the Iraqis is if you give them an inch, they take a mile."
That is why the administration is quietly supporting a draft U.N. Security Council resolution by Britain and the Netherlands to renew the international weapons inspections. That resolution, which would create a new inspection agency to replace the United Nations Special Commission, is expected to go before the council in September but still lacks support from France, Russia and China, which have veto power.
Without some inspections, the patrols of the "no flight" zones remain the core of the administration's effort to contain Saddam.
The United States and its allies created the zones -- north of the 36th parallel and south of the 33rd -- in the years after the Persian Gulf war to protect ethnic populations long repressed by Saddam's government. Iraq has never recognized the zones, but rarely challenged allied patrols of them.
After December's raids, however, Saddam declared the zones a violation of Iraq's sovereignty, and his troops have made good on threats to challenge them. Iraqi MiG jets dart in and out of the zones. Missile radars have tracked allied patrols and gunners have fired anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles at them.
American and British warplanes respond when challenged, though not every time. Every few days, in almost numbing routine, they have struck missile sites, radar stations and radio towers across both the northern and southern zones. Since late July, there has been a new flurry of strikes in response to newly vigorous Iraqi challenges.
On Tuesday alone, American A-10s and F-16s based in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and F-14s and F-18s aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt attacked three anti-aircraft artillery batteries and two radar sites in southern Iraq, while F-16s and F-15s based in Turkey went after two communication centers in the north. Those attacks followed heavy strikes on Monday.
The Pentagon says the air strikes are merely defensive responses to the provocations, meant to protect the pilots. But the targets American and British pilots strike are often not the ones that directly threaten them, especially since Iraq has placed many of its weapons in places the Pentagon says is meant to put Iraqi civilians at risk. When Iraqi forces fired an anti-aircraft battery on Tuesday, they did so from downtown Mosul.
Brig. Gen. David Deptula, who commands the patrols over northern Iraq from the air base in Incirlik, Turkey, said the strikes could stop at any time, as soon as Iraq stopped challenging the zones.
"Saddam really is in control over whether or not we drop any weapons over his country," Deptula said in a telephone interview. "We didn't for six years" before December.
With the increase in tempo, the fighting over the zones is costing upwards of $1 billion a year, though Pentagon officials say it is difficult to fix an exact cost. More than 200 aircraft, 19 warships and 22,000 American troops are devoted to the effort.
The officials acknowledge that the strikes alone will not topple Saddam, even though the White House has openly called for the overthrow of his government and promised nominal support to opposition figures. That has led to frustration.
"He has been kept in check," one Defense official said. "But the question is: Have you met any of your long-term goals? I don't think so."
A senior administration official said that until a change in government occurs, containment was the only viable policy at this time, politically and diplomatically.
"Neither this administration, nor this Congress, nor any other country is prepared to take the measures that would be truly necessary to ensure there was a change of regime," the official said. "If you want to go beyond containment, you have to put your money where your mouth is. And that means ground troops."