Unless Saddam Hussein backs down, heavy U.S. bombing of Iraq appears inevitable soon.
Some 400 U.S. planes will be ready for action against Iraq by Saturday, when the USS Independence becomes the third U.S. aircraft carrier to arrive in the Persian Gulf. A fourth carrier, flying the Union Jack of Great Britain, stands ready.
War may yet be avoided. President Clinton has not decided to attack and would still prefer a diplomatic solution. But “the time for those options is running out,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry has warned.
If America attacks Iraq, it would be the biggest U.S. military assault since the Persian Gulf War of 1991. But any new campaign would not come close to matching that war in scale. That one included 500,000 soldiers on the ground and more than 1,200 planes; this one would be fought with air power alone.
And the goal of this assault would be much more limited than in 1991. Rather than expelling Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, today’s mission aims merely to force Saddam to admit international arms inspectors, and if he refuses, to cripple his ability to make and use weapons of mass destruction.
Can it work?
“Given the number of aircraft we have deployed, the answer is yes,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative think tank here.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is expected to read just like 1991’s: The campaign, when over, is expected to leave Saddam Hussein still in power and still dangerous, just less so.
“He probably will be standing after this air campaign, but he’ll be limping,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Weighing that outlook, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., voiced frustration shared by many. “If we’re going to do this, let’s go all the way,” he said. “Until we get him (Saddam) out of Iraq, we’re never going to get this situation under control.”
But ousting Saddam was not the mission in 1991, and it is not now, for the same reasons. In 1991, the United Nations authorized a U.S.-led coalition of forces drawn from more than 30 nations to achieve a specific but limited goal - to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, which they had invaded in July 1990.
As former President George Bush has argued ever since, U.S. forces had no legal authority to go beyond those orders and overthrow Saddam then, and they have none now. To do so in the absence of a U.N. mandate would be seen as outright aggression by the U.S. superpower against an Arab state and would provoke global resentment.
Moreover, toppling Saddam would require an invading army, and neither the American people nor U.S. military leaders nor U.S. allies abroad has an appetite for that.
“I don’t think there’s any desire at this point to commit ground troops under virtually any circumstances. That option really isn’t a consideration,” said Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., after a closed-door briefing Tuesday by top administration officials.
“We have all of 1,500 ground forces in the region at the moment,” Cordesman observed. “I would say we’re not going to invade a nation of 22 million people with a brigade.”
The current limited mission stems from the aftermath of the 1991 war. The U.N. ordered Saddam to accept inspections to ensure he was not rebuilding weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological. Since late October, Saddam has refused to admit U.N. inspectors to many sites suspected of housing such weapons or facilities to make them.
With U.N. backing, Clinton insists that Saddam must open all sites to inspection. After more than three months of fruitless diplomacy, he is threatening to bomb as a last resort.
If Saddam won’t let U.N. inspectors assure the world Iraq has no large stockpiles of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, then U.S. bombs will provide the assurance, Clinton vows.
“One way or the other, we are determined to deny Iraq the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. That is our bottom line,” Clinton declared Wednesday.
Clinton has ordered the Pentagon to draw plans for “a significant and sustained” air attack. Sites that could shelter weapons of mass destruction are the main targets. Others include Iraqi air defenses, bases housing the Republican Guard that sustains Saddam’s rule and other military command-and-control targets.
An air strike is unlikely before midmonth at the earliest, Pentagon officials said.
If Clinton decides to attack, military sources say, it could be two weeks more before the first bombs drop, which would give Saddam a final opportunity to back down.
It’s unclear how long any bombing might last. Saddam withstood 43 days of all-out bombing in 1991 and still did not surrender until ground forces rolled over his army.