U.S. preparing plan for sustained air strikes on Iraq; More aggressive policy aimed at toppling Hussein, not just isolating him


WASHINGTON -- As the United States and Iraq continue skirmishing, the Clinton administration is preparing for an escalation that would involve an air attack against Iraq far more severe than the 70-hour Desert Fox operation that ended Dec. 19, according to administration officials.

Instead of pinpoint strikes, the administration is ready with sustained bombing that could last up to three weeks, said three officials with the State Department and the National Security Council.

Such an attack would begin if Iraq downed an American or British plane patrolling the "no-fly" zones in southern and northern Iraq. Other triggers would be if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened the Kurdish minority in the north or Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south, or if the administration learned that the Iraqi leader was reconstituting biological, chemical or ballistic weapons.

Sustained strikes would mark a more aggressive policy aimed at overthrowing Hussein rather than simply isolating his regime, the officials said.

Hussein's ability to stay in power has frustrated U.S. policy-makers, who have responded by declaring, then ditching, one plan after another.

But now, short of walking away from Iraq, only a few options remain: limited retaliations or stepping up scenarios to overthrow Hussein.

As it prepares for the latter, the administration expects a particularly difficult period ahead.

Following the December bombing and reports this week that the CIA and the National Security Agency have used U.N. weapons inspectors to listen to conversations among Hussein's most elite troops, administration officials said the best they can expect is a less-intrusive U.N. inspection regime.

Under U.N. resolutions, Iraq must be disarmed before economic sanctions will be lifted. The sanctions were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

"We know that we are going to lose the battle on UNSCOM," the U.N. Special Commission charged with disarming Iraq, said one security official.

Richard Butler, the UNSCOM chairman, also is expected to lose his position because of questions about his cooperation with American spies, two U.N. Security Council diplomats said.

The new, go-it-alone policy against Hussein is not without potential pitfalls. For one thing, it is predicated on Hussein provoking an attack, letting him set the pace. For another, say analysts, sentiment against the Americans from U.N. Security Council members France, Russia and China will likely grow if the standoff continues.

But others see factors mounting against Hussein.

In a revision of damage estimates from the four nights of bombing in December, U.S. Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, said yesterday that the strikes killed or wounded 600 to 2,000 elite Republican Guard troops.

Zinni also said Hussein revealed some vulnerability about security in southern Iraq by executing key military commanders during or after the bombing raids. The executions, according to Zinni and Iraqi opposition leaders, were likely ordered by Hussein's new commander in the south, Ali Hassan Majid, who is notorious for using chemical warfare in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 Kurds.

Perhaps the most surprising development, though, occurred Jan. 5 in Hussein's Army Day speech that was televised throughout the Arab world. In it, he urged the Arab masses to rise up against their leaders.

Clinton administration officials have seized on Hussein's speech. Said Zinni: "The language he used, his attack on all the other leaders in the region, I think, showed a degree of desperation that we hadn't seen before. To us, that speech was shocking."

"I think there are signs there that there is a degree of loss of control and he is shaken," said Zinni, the leader of the U.S. Central Command.

Asked if Hussein might do something "irrational" if squeezed further by U.S. and U.N. policies that limit his ability to develop weapons or use his military forces, Zinni said the Iraqi leader who invaded Kuwait in 1990 is known for bold acts and missteps.

Pub Date: 1/09/99

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