U.S. missiles strike Iraq Weapons fired from naval vessels hit nuclear plant

January 18, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Even as his successor was en route to the nation's capital to claim power, President Bush unleashed a missile attack against Iraq yesterday in an eerie replay of the beginning of the Persian Gulf War.

Mr. Bush's decision to send Iraq "a political and diplomatic" message in the final 72 hours of his presidency dramatically overshadowed President-elect Bill Clinton's gala arrival in Washington.

Two years to the day after the start of the Persian Gulf War, Americans turning on their television sets yesterday saw pictures of tracer bullets and anti-aircraft fire filling the night sky over Baghdad as more than 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy vessels struck at a nuclear processing plant in the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.

That footage alternated with shots of Mr. Clinton's carefully choreographed arrival in the U.S. capital, where he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic citizens and a spectacular fireworks show.

Clinton aides issued a statement from the president-elect strongly supporting Mr. Bush's latest actions.

"Saddam Hussein's continuing provocation has been met by appropriate and forceful response. I fully support President Bush's actions," the statement said. "Saddam Hussein should be very clear in understanding that the current and the next administration are in complete agreement on the necessity of his fully complying with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions."

But hoping to build a crescendo of public enthusiasm for his presidency with yesterday's inaugural kickoff, Mr. Clinton avoided any direct mention of the attack in his public comments.

U.S. officials strongly hinted that further military action could be mounted against President Hussein's regime before President Bush's term expires at noon Wednesday. And Mr. Clinton himself has indicated he is prepared to take military action once he takes office, if Mr. Hussein decides to test him.

Last night, the United Nations turned down Iraq's latest conditions for allowing weapons inspectors to fly into the country, raising the possibility of further retaliation. Iraq had offered to let U.N. flights pass over the southern "no-fly" zone if the U.S. and its allies stopped all air operations over Iraq during the flights.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday's attack was designed to make "a political and diplomatic point," that Iraq must comply with all restrictions imposed by the United Nations after the Gulf War.

"It is the Iraqi leadership that bears full responsibility for today's events," said the president's chief spokesman. Mr. Bush remained secluded at Camp David.

The missile attack against the outskirts of Baghdad culminated a day of heightened confrontation.

It began early in the day, when an American F-16 pilot shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 fighter jet in the northern "no-fly" zone, and U.S. pilots bombed suspected anti-aircraft radar sites in the area.

Then at about 1:30 p.m. EST, U.S. forces began a two-hour missile strike against a manufacturing facility eight miles southeast of Baghdad, which U.S. officials said had been used to produce parts for Mr. Hussein's nuclear weapons program. More than 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles were used in the raid, which was launched from U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Only missiles were used in the attack on the manufacturing plant, and there were no U.S. casualties in the air combat earlier in the day.

However, one person was reported killed when the Al-Rashid Hotel in downtown Baghdad was struck by a missile. Iraq said a U.S. weapon was responsible and Pentagon officials said they could not rule that out. Reports out of Iraq indicated that at least two persons were killed and 20 injured in yesterday's action.

Mr. Hussein, in a TV speech marking the anniversary of the start of the Gulf War, called the latest military confrontation a "new chapter in the mother of all battles." Speaking a few hours before the missile attack on Zaafaraniyah, a suburb eight miles from Baghdad, the Iraqi leader assailed Kuwait's ruling family and predicted victory over the U.S.-led alliance.

If anything, the long, and highly personalized, war of nerves between Mr. Bush and Mr. Hussein appears to be escalating in the waning hours of the Bush administration.

With the U.S. president, rejected by the voters of his own country, about to leave office, Mr. Hussein "wants to rub it in a little bit," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana speculated on CBS.

Though no one in the Clinton camp appeared prepared to publicly question the timing of Mr. Bush's actions, the new air war puts heavy pressure on the incoming administration to cope with an overseas crisis before many of its top officials are in place.

The Bush administration last week ordered thousands of top political appointees to abandon their jobs Wednesday, whether or not their replacements are on duty.

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