Loss of the Innocents WAR IN THE GULF

February 15, 1991

From the mind of Saddam Hussein comes another vicious dimension to the deadly art of war. This time the Iraqi dictator has opted for the use of dual-purpose facilities -- military and civilian -- in an attempt to win on the propaganda stage what he cannot win on the battlefield. In effect, he is using his own people as "human shields" to discourage bombing of legitimate targets or, if the worst happens, as it did in Baghdad this week, to flash to the world pictures of dead and burned and maimed innocents via instant television coverage.

Such tactics can hardly be surprising from a man who turned his country into a garrison state, launched two wars in one decade for territorial aggrandizement, used chemical weaponry to kill thousands of Kurds, forced hundreds of foreigners to act as "human shields" for military installations and defense factories, publicly proclaimed his intention to use prisoners-of-war for the same purpose, unleashed an oil-spill disaster in the Persian Gulf and shot Scud missiles randomly into the heart of Israeli and Saudi population centers.

Americans are grieved that bombs and rockets delivered by their own airmen inevitably kill civilians. Officials in charge of the gulf war are making excruciating efforts to avoid such casualties for reasons that are both humane and geo-political. But they will have to do better to prevent Saddam Hussein from obscuring the fact that he started this war by violently seizing little Kuwait.

The Bush administration, uncomfortably aware that Mr. Hussein's PR is having some success, is now shifting some of the emphasis in the air war from targets near populated areas to the Iraqi armies massed in and near Kuwait. It has even publicly granted sanctuary to the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where many foreign visitors and media personnel are staying, even though Pentagon experts contend it is also being used as a military command-and-control center. Two key bridges across the Tigris, which reportedly carry the last remaining closed communication links with Iraqi forces in the field, also are now off limits.

By prolonging the air war, President Bush has limited American losses and avoided public upset at home. But, conversely, massive bombing is heightening public unrest around the globe. The latest tragedy has thwarted presidential efforts, through tight Pentagon censorship, to project an antiseptic, video-game version of a war that Baghdad now wishes to expose in all its horror.

How many more thousands of Iraqis will Saddam Hussein lead to slaughter? Half a million of his compatriots died in a fruitless campaign to capture control of a key waterway from Iran. Now he has half a million men hunkered down and taking a fearful pounding to hold captured Kuwait while he "impatiently" awaits "the mother of battles." For shoddy conquest, there seems no end to the sacrifice he imposes on his people.

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