WASHINGTON -- The commander of allied air forces in the Persian Gulf war, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, said yesterday the destruction of Iraq's nuclear works would be a major undertaking -- no one-shot operation -- if President Bush ordered it done.
"To destroy everything would take a sustained air campaign of several days at least," the U.S. Air Force general told reporters. He said the United States still had 10 percent of its wartime air strength in the gulf region and, "If we're told to do something, we could do it."
He spoke as a U.N. deadline arrived for Iraq to deliver full information on its nuclear program.
General Horner would not speculate on potential Iraqi targets or indicate what he now knew about Baghdad's nuclear facilities. But his observations on the need for a sustained campaign seemed to reflect growing knowledge and suspicion about the extent of the Iraqi development effort.
W. Seth Carus, an authority at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently wrote that Iraq "omitted facilities known to be associated with nuclear weapons development" when it handed the United States a list of 24 facilities and an inventory of its uranium stockpile.
While information had been dragged out of Iraq about attempts to produce fissionable material, Mr. Carus contended, "nothing has yet been done to uncover Iraq's efforts to design and assemble the nuclear weapons themselves."
General Horner, a veteran of Vietnam and the gulf war, seemed reluctant to resume an air war against Iraq -- a possibility that Mr. Bush has held out in pressuring Baghdad to meet U.N. demands for data on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and for dismantling its stocks of these as well as its ballistic missile capabilities.
The general, whose allied air campaign brought down Iraq and opened its armies to allied ground force defeat in 100 hours, said he was "prudently" considering a range of options in case political leaders ordered military measures. He commands the air forces of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's U.S. Central Command.
But pressed with questions on possible air strikes, General Horner said that war was "so abhorrent" to him that he did not want to think about it.
He cited the spread of hunger and disease in Iraq in the wake of the gulf war and the economic effects of the continuing oil embargo. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was not the one being hurt, he said.
"I'm at a loss on what to do with a guy like that," he said. "The problem there is that you don't hurt Saddam Hussein. He's impervious to pain. You hurt the Iraqi people."
Affected by similar concerns, the Bush administration is considering how it might loosen the fetters on Baghdad so that Iraq could sell some oil and pay for food and medicine.
Whatever the state of Iraq's nuclear works today, General Horner was confident that the air campaign "rendered his nuclear production capabilities ineffective."
This apparently meant that while the facilities were not wholly destroyed, as sometimes claimed during the war, they could not now turn out a bomb.
The general said the air campaign destroyed 80 percent of the nuclear capabilities that the allies knew about at the time of the war. (A U.N. investigation has since uncovered considerably more than was then known.)
He estimated that it could be nine to 10 years before Iraq could build a bomb, depending on how much outside help it could get. But U.N. resolutions, which the organization appears determined enforce, demand the dismantling of nuclear capabilities.