WASHINGTON -- Even as his successor was en route to the nation's capital to claim power, President Bush unleashed a missile attack against Iraq yesterday in an eerie replay of the beginning of the Persian Gulf War.
Mr. Bush's decision to send Iraq "a political and diplomatic" message in the final 72 hours of his presidency dramatically overshadowed President-elect Bill Clinton's gala arrival in Washington.
Two years to the day after the start of the Persian Gulf War, Americans turning on their television sets yesterday saw pictures of tracer bullets and anti-aircraft fire filling the night sky over Baghdad as more than 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy vessels struck at a nuclear processing plant in the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
That footage alternated with shots of Mr. Clinton's carefully choreographed arrival in the U.S. capital, where he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic citizens and a spectacular fireworks show.
Clinton aides issued a statement from the president-elect strongly supporting Mr. Bush's latest actions.
"Saddam Hussein's continuing provocation has been met by appropriate and forceful response. I fully support President Bush's actions," the statement said. "Saddam Hussein should be very clear in understanding that the current and the next administration are in complete agreement on the necessity of his fully complying with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions."
But hoping to build a crescendo of public enthusiasm for his presidency with yesterday's inaugural kickoff, Mr. Clinton avoided any direct mention of the attack in his public comments.
U.S. officials strongly hinted that further military action could be mounted against President Hussein's regime before President Bush's term expires at noon Wednesday. And Mr. Clinton himself has indicated he is prepared to take military action once he takes office, if Mr. Hussein decides to test him.
Last night, the United Nations turned down Iraq's latest conditions for allowing weapons inspectors to fly into the country, raising the possibility of further retaliation. Iraq had offered to let U.N. flights pass over the southern "no-fly" zone if the U.S. and its allies stopped all air operations over Iraq during the flights.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday's attack was designed to make "a political and diplomatic point," that Iraq must comply with all restrictions imposed by the United Nations after the Gulf War.
"It is the Iraqi leadership that bears full responsibility for today's events," said the president's chief spokesman. Mr. Bush remained secluded at Camp David.
The missile attack against the outskirts of Baghdad culminated a day of heightened confrontation.
It began early in the day, when an American F-16 pilot shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 fighter jet in the northern "no-fly" zone, and U.S. pilots bombed suspected anti-aircraft radar sites in the area.
Then at about 1:30 p.m. EST, U.S. forces began a two-hour missile strike against a manufacturing facility eight miles southeast of Baghdad, which U.S. officials said had been used to produce parts for Mr. Hussein's nuclear weapons program. More than 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles were used in the raid, which was launched from U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
Only missiles were used in the attack on the manufacturing plant, and there were no U.S. casualties in the air combat earlier in the day.
However, one person was reported killed when the Al-Rashid Hotel in downtown Baghdad was struck by a missile. Iraq said a U.S. weapon was responsible and Pentagon officials said they could not rule that out. Reports out of Iraq indicated that at least two persons were killed and 20 injured in yesterday's action.
Mr. Hussein, in a TV speech marking the anniversary of the start of the Gulf War, called the latest military confrontation a "new chapter in the mother of all battles." Speaking a few hours before the missile attack on Zaafaraniyah, a suburb eight miles from Baghdad, the Iraqi leader assailed Kuwait's ruling family and predicted victory over the U.S.-led alliance.
If anything, the long, and highly personalized, war of nerves between Mr. Bush and Mr. Hussein appears to be escalating in the waning hours of the Bush administration.
With the U.S. president, rejected by the voters of his own country, about to leave office, Mr. Hussein "wants to rub it in a little bit," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana speculated on CBS.
Though no one in the Clinton camp appeared prepared to publicly question the timing of Mr. Bush's actions, the new air war puts heavy pressure on the incoming administration to cope with an overseas crisis before many of its top officials are in place.
The Bush administration last week ordered thousands of top political appointees to abandon their jobs Wednesday, whether or not their replacements are on duty.
Mr. Bush's defense secretary, Dick Cheney, noted yesterday that Mr. Clinton has announced his selection for only one of the 45 Defense Department jobs that require Senate confirmation, that of Defense Secretary-designate Les Aspin, leaving a potential void in the area of national security.
"It's very important to try to have some kind of continuity in this area, and I think the fact of the matter is that in about 72 hours, the Clinton people will take control of the national security establishment and as yet most of the key spots below the Cabinet level have not been filled, or at least there have been no announcements of who will serve in those posts," Mr. Cheney said on ABC.
Mr. Cheney said arrangements were being made for "a few" key people to stay on at the Defense Department. But he sought to blame the Clinton team for ordering Bush appointees to leave their jobs.
If Mr. Clinton had any doubts about Mr. Bush's motives, he did not show it.
Clinton aides have been kept informed of U.S. military plans for the attacks, but Mr. Bush's spokesman said yesterday that the president-elect was not consulted in advance of the latest strikes. Moments after Mr. Clinton's bus pulled up at the Lincoln Memorial, his deputy national security adviser, Sandy Berger, climbed aboard to brief the president-elect.
Mr. Bush, who left Washington Friday as thousands of Clinton supporters streamed into the city, is not scheduled to return to the White House until tomorrow night, the eve of Mr. Clinton's inauguration.
Bush spokesmen were careful to stress that yesterday's military actions were taken on behalf of the allied coalition, under the authority of previous U.N. resolutions.
Yesterday's strike came five days after coalition aircraft bombed anti-aircraft positions in southern Iraq, most of which escaped serious damage.