U.S., Britain call halt to air strikes against Iraq Clinton says campaign left 'significant damage'

December 20, 1998|By Greg Schneider and Mark Matthews | Greg Schneider and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Britain ended a four-day campaign of cruise missile and bomb attacks against Iraq last night, with President Clinton declaring that he was "confident we have achieved our mission" and the Pentagon reporting no casualties among attacking forces.

In a brief televised speech from the White House less than five hours after he had been impeached, Clinton said that an early assessment of the 70-hour air campaign showed Iraq's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction had suffered "significant damage." The Pentagon reported that Iraq's missile program had been set back by at least a year.

The military campaign, dubbed Operation Desert Fox, consisted bombing raids on more than 100 targets, including military research facilities, communications centers, barracks and headquarters of the elite Republican Guard, and presidential offices in downtown Baghdad.

Clinton maintained the long-term goal of removing Saddam Hussein, saying that as long as the Iraqi leader remained in power he posed a threat to the region and the world.

The U.S. military "will maintain a strong, ready force in the gulf" to keep Saddam Hussein in check, said Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

The air campaign, the most extensive of the Clinton presidency, began Wednesday, a day before the House was due to begin its historic impeachment debate. The session was postponed for a day.

Clinton ordered the strikes a day after United Nations weapons inspectors concluded that the Iraqis had obstructed their searches to the point where they could no longer perform their jobs. He said it had been planned as a four-day operation from the start.

Avoiding any ambitious plan to topple the Iraqi regime itself, the United States established the modest aim of "degrading" Iraq's capacity to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles used to deliver them.

After attacking more than 100 targets in four nights of bombings, "we have achieved those goals," Cohen said.

Military leaders said they had no information on Iraqi casualties, either military or civilian.

"We concentrated on military targets and worked very hard to keep civilian casualties as low as possible," Cohen said. "To the extent there are civilian casualties, only Saddam and his brutally repressive regime are to blame."

Speaking shortly after Clinton's announcement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the mission's four-day duration was set for two reasons: "Because such a campaign is the right and proportionate response to Saddam's breach of U.N. obligations and also because of our sensitivity to the holy month of Ramadan." The Muslim period of fasting and prayer began yesterday.

In central Baghdad, Iraqis left bomb shelters, expressing joy and relief the campaign was over. Earlier last evening, a missile smashed into a ministry building, wounding three guards.

Maintaining the Iraqi regime's defiant posture to the end, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told a news conference before the air strikes ended, "We will fight until the last citizen."

He said the United Nations weapons inspections were finished, calling the teams "a commission of spies." Clinton, however, said last night that he would welcome the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq, as long as they were allowed to do their job.

The air strikes produced an angry reaction in Moscow, which has tried to bring Iraq back into the international community, and triggered anti-U.S. and anti-British protests in parts of the Arab world.

Yesterday, demonstrators in Damascus, Syria, broke into the U.S. embassy and caused extensive damage inside the ambassador's residence. U.S. officials told Syria they were "deeply concerned about the failure to provide adequate security, including the failure to bring demonstrators under adequate control when they began to attack and damage U.S. property and to threaten the safety of Americans."

Wrapping up the operation last night and looking to the future, Clinton offered no new steps to contain Iraq or undermine the Hussein regime. He said the United States would "intensify our engagement with the Iraqi opposition groups, prudently and effectively." He has used similar language before, but administration officials are skeptical about the ability of weak and disparate opposition groups to become a cohesive and capable force.

Clinton also said the United States would continue to enforce a no-fly zone in the north and south of Iraq, keep up economic sanctions, and support a U.N. program that allows proceeds from Iraqi oil sales to be used to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people.

Advocates of a firmer policy toward Iraq had hoped Clinton would use the opportunity to expand the no-fly zones to cover the entire country. The zones prohibit any Iraqi military air traffic with the threat they would be shot down.

While Clinton and military leaders insisted that the raids were not intended to topple Saddam Hussein, many targets clearly were chosen to loosen his grip.

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