Airstrike delayed at '11th hour' Desert Thunder was to loose barrage against Iraqi sites

November 16, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Desert Thunder, a substantial missile and aircraft barrage, was set to rumble through Iraq Saturday night but was headed off within two or three hours when Iraq vowed to let U.N. weapons inspectors resume their work.

"It was the 11th hour. It was close," said a Pentagon official.

President Clinton set in motion the military strike Friday morning, only to rescind it Saturday sometime after 8 a.m. when Baghdad appeared to begin responding positively to appeals by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, said a senior administration official.

"The president decided at that point to halt -- to put a pause, essentially -- in the operation to see what that response was," the administration official said. Pentagon officials said the attack was to begin late Saturday morning Washington time, which would have been early evening in Baghdad.

When Clinton made his decision to pause, forces were readying to attack. A half-dozen B-52 bombers armed with cruise missiles were en route to the Persian Gulf from a base in Louisiana, and sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower had finished loading bombs onto F-14 and F/A-18 attack aircraft.

It was then that the operation began to "recycle," meaning that after the "pause" order, it was to go forward 24 hours later -- late yesterday morning, the senior administration official said. But Clinton called for a stand down in U.S. forces shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday.

"The president did issue an order and, as we know, that order was rescinded based upon the fact that the Iraqis indicated they were about to capitulate," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday.

The attack would have begun with cruise missiles fired from Navy ships and long-range Air Force bombers, followed by bombs from British and American aircraft.

They would have rained down on scores of sites throughout Iraq, ranging from facilities for the production of chemical and biological weapons to missile sites and military command-and-control headquarters, according to Pentagon officials.

Eight U.S. ships and about a dozen B-52s were to fire cruise missiles. The air assault would have been mounted from the USS Eisenhower with nearly 50 F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. The Air Force also had about 80 attack and support aircraft in the region to take part in the strike on Iraq.

"We had a very credible threat of overwhelming force, which was imminent had we not received word that Iraq was prepared to make the commitments we had been asking for," Clinton said yesterday at a news conference. "We remain ready to act."

Despite the order to attack and vows of future action, the president indicated that a military response would have led to troubling consequences. While the attack would "significantly degrade" Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, it would also "mark the end" of the UNSCOM weapons inspections.

"We would then have no oversight -- no insight, no involvement in what is going on within Iraq," Clinton said.

More than 139 additional U.S. aircraft -- including F-117 stealth fighters and B-1 bombers -- were ordered to beef up forces in the gulf, with dozens of them leaving Saturday morning, just as the military attack was postponed.

While Clinton was addressing the nation late yesterday morning, Air Force EC-130s were leaving an Arizona base for the Persian Gulf.

Pentagon officials said most of the 139 aircraft slated to beef up existing forces will either remain in the gulf or at bases in Europe. Only about 12 of those aircraft -- including two F-117s and six B-52s -- will not leave the United States as a result of the stand down.

"We continue to have forces flowing into the region," said Cohen, who indicated that some of the aircraft may be recalled to bases in the United States.

The 3,000 soldiers from Fort Stewart in Georgia who were scheduled to supplement the 1,500 troops in Kuwait with tanks and artillery have still not received orders to leave, Sgt. 1st Class Dave Schad, an Army spokesman, said yesterday. There is no word when or if they will be deployed, he said.

"This is life in the 18th Airborne Corps. It's fairly routine," said Schad. When Hussein barred UNSCOM inspectors from weapons sites in February, some 6,000 soldiers from Fort Stewart were told to get ready to head for the gulf. But Annan stepped in and got assurances from Hussein that the inspectors could resume their work.

One Pentagon official said the U.S. forces in the gulf are "frustrated" about being "jerked around" by Hussein.

But Gen. Hugh H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said morale of the troops involved in the operation "is very high."

"They are professionals. They understand their business. But those of us in uniform always understand the price of war that war is a very dirty business," said Shelton. "So any time that we can be a part of bringing about a peaceful solution, we are always happy for that."

Sen. John S. McCain, an Arizona Republican and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said a "terrible aspect" of the cat-and-mouse game with Hussein is the effect it has on the military.

"We simply do not have a military that can continue to be deployed for extended periods of time at billions of dollars of expense and expect to maintain a strong and viable military," said McCain. No figure was available for the cost of the latest confrontation, but February's deployment cost more than $1 billion.

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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