WASHINGTON -- Top Clinton administration officials said Saddam Hussein is weaker and in a "stronger box" after a four-day bombing campaign, and promised similar punishment if the Iraqi leader tries to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons.
"Saddam Hussein is weaker because all the targets and things that he cares about most have been destroyed -- many of them," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on NBC's "Meet the Press," vowing that the administration would redouble efforts toward a "different regime" in Iraq.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also appeared on the Sunday talk shows to release bomb damage estimates and to display videos of cruise missiles and U.S. aircraft striking targets deep inside Iraq.
"We consider this a very successful attack," said Shelton. "Our success goes up almost daily as we have a chance to make a more complete assessment."
Despite the Clinton administration's claims, some retired officers and government officials said the four-day attack would amount to a temporary setback for Hussein. They wondered if the administration is willing to carry out the type of military operation needed to oust Hussein or provide Iraqi opposition forces with the tools for the job. Shelton said nine of Iraq's missile research and development facilities were destroyed, setting back the program at least a year.
Twenty of Hussein's 21 command and control facilities were hit, Shelton said, with moderate to severe damage. "We hit a total of about 18 out of 19 of his weapons of mass destruction security apparatus and got very good damage on all of those."
Hussein declared yesterday that Iraq had been successful against "enemies of God," and Iraqi officials said Baghdad would no longer cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the airstrikes had destroyed the intricate system of monitoring that inspectors spent seven years setting up. In Paris, President Jacques Chirac said France would support a "new organization, new methods" so the United Nations could maintain control over Iraq's weapons.
Cohen said the Clinton administration will press for U.N. economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf war to remain in place, and that U.S. forces will stay in the region to be ready for any military action.
"We understand that [Hussein] may try to repair these facilities or rebuild them in most cases," said Cohen. "We're going to continue the sanctions, and watch to make sure that he doesn't pose a threat to neighbors or try to reconstitute these weapons ** of mass destruction programs."
Albright said 100 targets in Iraq were attacked with 650 sorties from British and American aircraft, along with 400 cruise missiles -- about 100 missiles more than were fired in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war.
Shelton showed pictures of five buildings at the Taji Missile Repair Facility, which were all damaged. Two buildings at a missile fabrication plant 13 miles south of Baghdad were competely destroyed, said Shelton.
"We had very specific military objectives," said Cohen. "Those objectives have been met."
The defense secretary said the aim of the bombing campaign was to "degrade" Hussein's efforts to produce chemical and biological weapons and his ability to threaten Iraq's neighbors.
"We haven't set out to try to destroy him," Cohen added, "because we are concerned that we not target innocent civilians."
The bombing campaign targeted Hussein's elite Republican Guard, which protects and transports his weapons of mass destruction -- and serves as a cornerstone of his regime. Pentagon officials conceded that if targeting them helps topple Hussein, it would be an added benefit.
The Republican Guards "were the people responsible for supporting this guy, and clearly that was an effort to show these people there was a price to pay," said Ronald Fogleman, a retired general and former Air Force chief of staff. "In the past, we left them basically alone, to stay in their barracks [but this time] they were among the first targets."
Another retired general with wide experience in the region offered a less positive view of the bombing campaign, saying it only "bought you some time." Hussein might be set back in his weapons programs but he's still in power. "He's just going to come at you differently," the general said, pointing to terrorism as the likely option. "He's a proud guy. We've made him mad.
"I don't know where we go from here in terms of a strategy," he said. "If the threat is that great, you ought to get a coalition together and bring his government down."
Meanwhile, President Clinton and his top national security officials said they would step up efforts to support the various Iraqi opposition groups, including Kurds and Shiite Muslims, as a way of unseating Hussein.
"We would like to see a different regime, a regime that respects the international community, but most of all reflects what the Iraqi people want," said Albright, "and that is what we're going to be working towards by more active support of various opposition groups."
Some former U.S. officials who are supportive of the opposition groups said the Clinton administration is only talking a good game. While the State Department is working to bring the disparate groups together, the Pentagon is against backing any military plan the opposition groups say is vital.
Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commands U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region, has dismissed the opposition groups as not viable. By backing a military insurrection, Zinni says, the United States could be fragmenting Iraq into another Afghanistan.
Opposition group advocates -- who include retired U.S. generals and former intelligence officials -- said one plan is to create a safe zone in southern Iraq for a rebel army of 5,000. Those rebels could, in turn, incite insurrection and serve as a base for defectors.
"You can't defect to an airplane or a cruise missile," said one U.S. official who supports the plan.
A key moment could come next month when the Clinton administration must announce which group or groups qualify for $97 million in Pentagon training and assistance that was passed by Congress and reluctantly signed into law by the president.
The law authorizes -- but does not require -- that the opposition receive the help.
Top Clinton administration officials say they don't want to see any quick and "ill-fated" military campaigns. Supporting the opposition groups is a long-term strategy, they said.
Pub Date: 12/21/98