WASHINGTON -- The White House attempted yesterday to walk a delicate political line in response to the bombing Wednesday of a purported Baghdad military command bunker that turned out to be loaded with civilians.
While insisting that the uproar over civilian deaths has not prompted a change in targeting bomb sites that might be seen as a victory for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials tried to assure that extra care will be taken to avoid future civilian casualties.
"We will continue to attack command and control centers," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "There will continue to be casualties; there will continue to be civilian losses on both sides. The war goes on."
But, he added, "It's clear this episode is etched in our consciousness as we select our targets."
As part of that selection, military officials will "redouble our efforts" to determine whether civilians are present and "probably not strike the target" if they are, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon briefing yesterday.
Among potential targets to be spared, officials said, is Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel, home to foreign reporters and diplomats but, according to news reports, also home to a military communications center.
The scramble by Bush administration officials to cut their losses on their most significant propaganda setback so far in the Persian Gulf war illustrates again the difficulty of trying to do battle against a foe who refuses to honor international codes of military behavior, sources said.
"We don't want to encourage him to put civilians at military targets by saying we definitely won't hit them," one administration official explained.
But concern for the sensitivities of U.S. allies in the coalition, especially the Arab nations, prevents the administration from declaring -- as it did when Mr. Hussein threatened to use Western hostages as human shields -- that the presence of civilians won't make a difference.
Another facet of the political problem for President Bush is that vivid scenes of carnage -- such as those broadcast from Baghdad after the bombing -- feed anti-war sentiment in this country.
But the bombing campaign is aimed at weakening Mr. Hussein's military force as much as possible so that U.S. and allied casualties -- an even more sensitive issue in this country -- would be kept to a minimum should a ground assault be necessary.
"It's a real dilemma," said Laura Burstein, an anti-war activist, as she pondered the notion of Mr. Bush's accelerating a ground war in response to protests about the killing of Iraqi citizens. "I think we've already hit a critical point at which public opinion in this country is starting to turn around against the war."
Mr. Fitzwater acknowledged yesterday that complications in the air war caused by the mix of civilian facilities and military targets would be a factor in the president's decision on when a ground campaign would begin.
The White House spokesman discouraged speculation based on military assessments earlier this week that a ground war is still weeks off, however.
"It could happen at any time," Mr. Fitzwater said.