A Mistake In Planning An Air Raid WAR IN THE GULF



Those who urged restraint instead of war will have a thousand chances to say "I told you so" before it's over. The bombing of the Baghdad bunker where hundreds of civilians were sheltered is the most painful instance so far.

It was inevitable that there would be civilian casualties in a massive bombing campaign. It was predictable that in today's satellite-linked world, the aggrieved party would make political propaganda of those casualties.

Knowing this, President Bush could have avoided this week's international controversy by avoiding war. Instead, he went along with Pentagon planners who gave him the familiar assurances that they could conduct surgical air strikes, limited to known military facilities. And if our side's propaganda is to be believed, our pilots have indeed been remarkably precise with their smart bombs and missiles.

By mid-week, Allied fliers had completed some 67,000 sorties -- not all bombing runs -- with only scattered civilian damage. Cruise missiles performed accurately in their combat debut.

Michael Kelly, a former Sun correspondent who is now a free-lance magazine writer, told of going on the first day of war to see where a missile had zeroed in on the Iraqi defense ministry. As he watched from across the river, two more missiles whooshed in from nowhere and plunged into the ministry without touching the surrounding buildings.

If there had been wholesale civilian deaths before last Wednesday morning, it is certain that Iraqi censors would have rushed Peter Arnett and other Western reporters in Baghdad to the scene. Instead, the only "reporting" of mass casualties came from Ramsey Clark, who has been charging his own country with war crimes for two decades.

Clearly, the bombing of the bunker where those civilians were sleeping was a mistake. But it is absurd to say U.S. bombers would have targeted it if they had known it was used as an air-raid shelter. The political furor that would result from such a hit, intentional or not, was well understood.

The bombers did not aim at the building by mistake; they hit it dead-center with two smart bombs, 10 seconds apart. These were delayed-action bombs, which penetrated the reinforced concrete roof and exploded inside. A nearby school and mosque went unscathed. In execution of the mission, carelessness was not a factor.

The mistake was in the planning. U.S. officers insist they had three kinds of evidence that the building was a command and control bunker: Detailed diagrams, apparently from contractors, of its layout and conversion; aerial photos showing its camouflaged roof and the surrounding security fence, and electronic pickups of military radio traffic in and out.

What they did not have was negative information, the hardest kind to get, to show that the building was not being used for its original, pre-conversion purpose as a civilian air raid shelter. By some reports, hundreds had been sleeping there each night since the bombing started, but our high-tech snooping did not detect any such thing.

The best response the administration has been able to mount is that we didn't mean to do it, and besides Saddam Hussein may have intentionally sent those civilians in, sacrificing them for just this kind of propaganda advantage. That is not inconceivable; as U.S. spokesmen have said many times, he gassed his own citizens, executed hundreds who dared to oppose his leadership, and ravaged Kuwait.

But the fact that Saddam is a nasty man is old news, and it cannot compete with color pictures of burnt women and children being laid out in rows while their neighbors weep and curse the bombers. And that, of course, re-ignites the argument over whether Western journalists should be in Baghdad at all, and if they are, whether Western television should repeatedly show scenes that serve Saddam's purpose.

If there had been live television photos of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo or Hiroshima the day Allied raids destroyed those cities in World War II, it is most unlikely that American networks would have shown them. If they had, it is most uncertain that home-front America, which sent 11 million young men into uniform after Pearl Harbor, would have changed its mind about pressing on to victory.

Like every war to date, this one is different, and you can be sure that tomorrow will be different from today. Don't forget who told you so.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associated editor of The Sun.

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