Countdown to a bombing Attacking Baghdad: Too late to stop without help from Saddam Hussein.

February 12, 1998

THE CLOSEST to a time frame for concessions by Saddam Hussein was given yesterday by the U.S. commander in the Mideast region, Gen. Anthony Zinni, who said his forces would be in place to bomb Iraq in "a week or so." That's how much time there is to prevent this attack.

President Clinton has responsibly stated the attainable purpose: The mission would be to reduce the rogue state's ability to create and deliver chemical and biological weapons. No promise of eradicating them. No talk about deposing the dictator.

With a probability of killing and maiming civilians, and loss of American life, that would not be emotionally satisfying. If this attack occurs, it would not be to make Mr. Clinton or any other American feel good. The reason to do it would be something else: to take very seriously the United Nations resolution ending the gulf war in 1991 by denying weapons of mass destruction to Iraq, and giving the United Nations the duty to inspect for them.

If the U.S. bluff is called -- with nothing done to comply with inspections -- Mr. Hussein would be shown that it's all right to manufacture anthrax bombs and nerve gas warheads. That would be unacceptable. Americans and the world community should expect this attack to take place when General Zinni is ready.

The administration seeks a nonbinding resolution of support from Congress, which is not of one mind. It is difficult to understand those who want an assurance of toppling the dictator. What they want would require a ground force of up to a million, many American casualties and an indefinite occupation. There is no sign of U.S. public support, or world approval, for that.

It would be better for the Iraqi people and the world if this attack did not take place. But the U.N. inspectors found enough chemical and biological weapons and evidence of more to know that this is not a game, but a deadly reality. So far, Mr. Hussein has used such weapons on the Iranians in wartime and his own citizens in peacetime. There is no telling whom he would target with them next or for what reason.

To prevent these air raids, Mr. Hussein needs to let U.N. inspectors do their job. It's that simple. Declaring eight so-called presidential sites available for inspection, as Iraq did again yesterday, does not come close.

Pub Date: 2/12/98

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