The United States fired a second volley of cruise missiles against air defenses in southern Iraq Tuesday night, less than 24 hours after launching a first round and declaring it would enlarge the area south of Baghdad barred to flights by Iraqi military aircraft.
The second launch of 17 missiles, shot from three surface ships and a submarine in the Persian Gulf, was necessary to ensure elimination of radar sites and anti-aircraft missile launchers after damage assessment reports on the first strike were inconclusive, officials said.
“This is what we would call a mop-up operation,” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters. “It’s an effort to go in and assure we’ve done everything possible to suppress air defenses before we start enforcing the expanded ‘no-fly’ zone” starting at noon today.
In a statement from the White House earlier Tuesday following the initial attack, President Clinton said the unilateral U.S. action is intended to “make Saddam (Hussein) pay a price” for his military drive north into Kurdish territory over the weekend.
But the fact the missile strikes and expansion of the southern “no-fly” zone occurred many miles away from the Kurdish conflict spoke to a larger purpose - what Clinton said was “reducing (Saddam’s) ability to threaten his neighbors and America’s interests.”
Saddam Hussein responded defiantly, urging his air force and anti-aircraft gunners to attack U.S. and allied planes as they begin policing the expanded air exclusion zone.
Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, charged that Washington had no legal justification for the attacks, saying that Iraqi troops already had withdrawn from around the Kurdish city of Irbil and that U.S. intelligence reports to the contrary were “disinformation.”
Administration officials Tuesday acknowledged a reluctance to intervene in the northern dispute between Kurdish factions - one of which had invited Iraqi assistance - and said they chose to focus instead on shoring up U.S. dominance of the skies south of Baghdad. The officials said expansion of the exclusion zone was designed to undercut Saddam’s ability to train his air force and muster an invasion force that might again threaten Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, although existing international constraints on Iraq had contained such threats since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Clinton, who authorized the second missile strike Tuesday afternoon, told a gathering of the National Guard Association of the United States Tuesday night that he had moved against Iraq to avoid being drawn into a possibly broader conflict with Saddam.
“We know that if we do not pursue this policy,” Clinton said, “we might again be called upon to do more, as we were in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm,” referring to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “We do not want that to happen and therefore I did what I did today.
Before the attacks, the administration had sought backing from key allies such as Saudi Arabia and France. But those countries were reluctant Tuesday to be seen backing military action against Iraq, whether for the larger strategic purpose or as punishment for the incursion into Kurdish territory.
At the same time, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole who over the weekend seized on the latest Iraqi crisis to criticize Clinton’s foreign policy leadership as weak, Tuesday supported the military mission, but urged even tougher actions.
Dole called for forcing Iraqi withdrawal from northern Iraq, the release of Kurdish prisoners, and a halt to interference with the Kurds by not only Iraq but Iran, which is backing the other Kurdish faction.
Administration officials reported no essential change in the deployment of Iraqi forces in northern Iraq. Armored units have withdrawn from Irbil, the main Kurdish city that Iraqi troops seized Saturday, ousting Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the name of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. But numerous tanks and other armored vehicles remained well beyond where they were prior to the assault, U.S. officials said.
Other Iraqi units are concentrated on the main roads to Suleymaniyah, another Talabani stronghold, where U.S. officials suspect Saddam is biding his time and possibly planning another attack.
In a satellite interview with CNN, Iraq’s Aziz called those suspicions “baseless, totally baseless.”
U.S. defense officials offered few details about the damage done by the first round of 27 missiles, fired from two Navy ships and two B-52 bombers at air defense radars, surface-to-air missile installations and command centers covering 14 different sites in the expanded area of the no-fly zone. Officials said cloud cover over Iraq had inhibited satellite imagery.
But some photos suggested only partial damage. One radar site, for instance, had its top blown off but was still functioning. At another site, an anti-aircraft missile was destroyed but its launcher was left intact, according to military officials.
Tuesday night’s volley was aimed at about half the number of targets in the original set, including radar facilities and anti-aircraft missiles but not control centers or communication links, military sources said.
Iraq claimed the attack killed five people and injured 19. Bacon did not dispute the fatality figure but rejected claims by Iraqi officials that one missile struck a housing complex. Baghdad television showed the flat concrete roof of the one-story house caved in by the explosion, saying the building was in one of the residential quarters of Baghdad.
“We have no indication that that happened,” said Bacon.
The first attack Tuesday was the biggest U.S. strike against Iraq since 1993, when two dozen missiles destroyed an Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in response to an alleged assassination plot against former president George Bush while he was on a visit to Kuwait.
But missing from public U.S. statements Tuesday was a clear statement of what the administration is demanding Saddam do next to avoid more military retaliation. Administration officials said they have purposefully avoided setting forth specific criteria, such as demanding withdrawal of Saddam’s assault force from northern Iraq.
“If you make going back to the original lines the issue, you’re asking for an endless debate over whether he’s done so or not,” a senior official said.
Similarly, Clinton selected targets south of Baghdad, rather than in the north where the transgressions occurred, because “we wanted to play this game on our field, with targets of our choosing,” said a State Department official. “We didn’t want to let (Saddam) define the terms of the game.”
Officials said Saddam’s history of multiple, repeated violations of U.N. resolutions and international law led them to conclude they had to beef up their ability to constrain Iraqi behavior. By expanding the southern no-fly zone one degree - from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel, a distance of about 70 miles - officials said Saddam will be deprived of two major air force training areas and use of about 40 percent of the air defense capability that existed in the greater Baghdad area.
“This will substantially weaken Saddam Hussein’s ability to pursue military adventures in the south, and additionally, will weaken his ability to maintain an air force capable of projecting power in any direction,” Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
Perry said U.S. interests “are not tied to which party prevails” in the Kurdish conflict but rather in maintaining stability in the region by protecting “friendly nations.”
Graphic: U.S. missile attack on Iraq