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Clinton, advisers meet today to consider ending bombing of Iraq

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 12/19/98

WASHINGTON - President Clinton will meet this morning with his national security advisers to discuss whether US and British forces have damaged Iraq enough to end the bombing campaign.

A decision to halt Operation Desert Fox would represent a dramatic turnaround from yesterday afternoon, when the Pentagon released data showing that the airstrikes from the previous two days had struck some targets with deadly force but left more untouched or just slightly bruised.

Some analysts inferred from the data that the bombing would have to go on for a while if Clinton intended to inflict serious damage on Saddam Hussein's military power.

However, political and diplomatic factors may be coming to the fore, driven in part by the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which started at dawn today.

Airstrikes appeared to intensify last night, possibly as part of an effort to hit some targets again. Weapons have included cruise missiles fired by B-52 bombers and from ships, as well as laser-guided bombs dropped from several types of combat planes, although Baghdad has reportedly been hit only by cruise missiles.

US officials, from Clinton on down, have repeatedly said the aim was to ''degrade'' or ''diminish'' Hussein's ability to threaten his neighbors with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. By that vague definition, Clinton could stop the strikes any time. But as of yesterday, the strikes' results have not been very significant by military measures.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said yesterday that he was ''satisfied'' with the results of Operation Desert Fox so far, but added, ''The strikes are not complete.''

General Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heralded ''some very good success with our strikes,'' and showed a few videotapes of direct hits. ''Not all of them have gone according to plan,'' he added.

The information released by the Pentagon yesterday was noteworthy on its own. Some analysts said US officials released comprehensive data on ''bomb-damage assessment'' for the first time during any military operation. The Pentagon also released spy-satellite photos showing how some targets looked before and after an attack.

The data showed that, over the first two nights, US and British forces attacked 89 targets in Iraq, striking 77.

Of those hit, eight were destroyed, 10 were severely damaged, 18 moderately damaged, and seven only lightly damaged. The damage inflicted on 33 targets, over one-third of those attacked, had not yet been assessed.

''We are very, very early in the assessment,'' Rear Admiral Thomas Wilson, the Joint Staff's director of intelligence, told reporters. ''It is a very incomplete picture. ... We haven't even looked at all the targets.''

Still, the data available suggest that, by any purely military criteria, the operation itself is at an early stage.

''They're off to a really encouraging start, but it looks to me like they've got a long ways to go,'' John Pike, a weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said after examining the data. ''There's an awful lot of `light to moderate damage,' but I don't see very much in the `destroyed' or `severe damage' columns.''

The results seem particularly unimpressive for the attacks on the main target of this campaign: the facilities that develop, produce, store, and protect Hussein's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Of 19 targets attacked that relate to the security of these weapons, two were destroyed, one was severely damaged, four were lightly damaged, and one was missed.

Of 11 targets attacked that involved the production of weapons, none were reported destroyed or severely damaged, though eight of them are still being assessed for damage by intelligence specialists.

It is not clear if many weapons missed their targets or whether the weapons were simply too small to do much damage to these targets, many of which are quite large.

The cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs range from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in explosive energy. That is enough to demolish small structures or punch holes in large ones, but not enough to wreck structures such as a large office building or a blast-resistant hangar.

Targets included missile-production factories, intelligence headquarters, communications transmitters, airfields, security-guard barracks, air defense sites, and the only ''economic'' target, a refinery in Basra that reportedly has been used to export oil in violation of UN sanctions.

Pentagon officials declined to comment on reports that they have avoided bombing Iraqi chemical plants for fear of releasing deadly substances. However, Shelton noted they have not gone after ''dual-use'' facilities that make both chemical weapons and civilian products.

There has apparently been no resistance by Iraqi military forces, other than scattered and ineffective antiaircraft fire.

Officials refuse to say how many weapons have been launched at these targets, though they have acknowledged that over 300 cruise missiles have been fired, at roughly $1 million each. They have also said over 80 strike aircraft have dropped weapons, with most carrying two to four laser-guided bombs; that is at least an additional 200, or over 500 weapons in all.

All this suggests each of the 89 targets has received, on average, the firepower from at least five weapons. Some no doubt were hit by more, others with fewer.

Some officials have raised the possibility of an early end to the airstrikes because of Ramadan. Cohen said he was sensitive to Ramadan, but emphasized it would not determine the course of the campaign.

Ramadan has not stopped wars in the past. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war took place during Ramadan. The Iran-Iraq war went on for eight years with no breaks for the holiday.

National security adviser Sandy Berger said yesterday that Ramadan ''is not an automatic deadline'' to end the bombing.

Another sign that military officers were looking toward a longer operation yesterday was the announcement that more armed forces are continuing to arrive in the Persian Gulf area.

The B-1 bomber made its combat debut Thursday night, though in a minor role, as a a single plane dropped a barrage of 500-pound ''dumb bombs'' - it can hold 84 - on an undisclosed vealed target outside Baghdad.

The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its battle group were expected in the Gulf last night. Additional troops and weapons just started to load up from US shores yesterday, as well.

Bombs aren't the only thing US aircraft were dropping on Iraq. Pentagon officials said A-10 attack planes have dropped leaflets on Iraqi soldiers in the southern part of the country, warning them not to invade Kuwait again.

''Iraqi soldiers, save yourselves!'' one pamphlet reads. ''Only those units who support the Baghdad regime were targeted. Your unit was not targeted, but it is being watched. ... Stay in your positions. Do not head south.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/19/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.