Cohen says airstrikes may lead to destabilizing Iraqi regime Pentagon notes targets hit include 18 facilities that protect weapons, Hussein

December 20, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Four days of airstrikes left Saddam Hussein alive but not as well -- or at least as secure -- as he was beforehand.

While not setting the goal of toppling Hussein, the U.S.-led force struck hard at targets that are crucial to shoring up the Iraqi regime.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said yesterday that destabilizing the Iraqi leadership could be a side benefit of this week's heavy pummeling of Iraqi targets.

'Degrading his forces'

"To the extent that we attack those forces who are in charge and help him either conceal, move, transport and maintain these weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, then that can have the consequence of degrading his forces and his stability," Cohen told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

Of the Pentagon's targets, 18 were facilities used to provide security for outlawed weapons. Eleven received moderate to severe damage, five were lightly damaged and two were destroyed, officials said.

Included among these targets were sites belonging to the Iraqi Special Republican Guard and the Special Security Organization.

While officials described these units as protection for Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, they also serve as Hussein's Praetorian Guard, protecting the Iraqi leadership itself, according to Kenneth M. Pollack, a Persian Gulf expert at the National Defense University.

Hussein's protective forces resemble circles within circles, Pollack said: The regular Republican Guard is the outer ring; within that is the Special Republican Guard, which has about 25,000 men; within that is the Special Security Organization, estimated to number 5,000 to 10,000.

The Special Security Organization, headed by Hussein's son Qusay, controls the two larger bodies, according to Pollack.

'Short-term weakening'

The Pentagon has not offered estimates of casualties on the Iraqi side, and by now the troops in these organizations may have been dispersed.

"Four days of airstrikes, especially at the targets we have hit, probably have caused a significant short-term weakening of their capabilities," said Pollack.

"These guys are probably very scared."

Because it is Hussein's security apparatus that has foiled or prevented Iraqi coups against him, many Iraq watchers have pointed to these two organizations as the first hurdle to toppling the regime.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the damage inflicted this week could help pave the way for action from within the Iraqi military.

The Pentagon said Friday that U.S. forces had dropped 2 million leaflets on Iraqi army units in southern Iraq, where some analysts believe defections from the regular army are most likely.

The leaflets reportedly urged the Iraqi army units to remain where they were, saying that if they did so they would not be harmed and that only units supporting the Baghdad regime were targets.

Pollack said that an uprising by the regular army is "entirely possible -- unfortunately it's unlikely."

"I don't think anyone in Washington would bet on this as a likely scenario or make it a goal."

That's about how the White House sees it.

"We maintain the view that a regime change is something we desire, obviously, but it's a long-term process," a White House official said. If an additional benefit of the strikes is that the regime is weakened, "that's value-added," this official said.

U.S. and British forces also struck a number of barracks of the Republican Guard itself.

"We have done particularly serious damage to the Republican Guard organization, which is part of the machinery of oppression that he uses in Iraq," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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