2am: Heaviest bombing of Iraq so far as Russia withdraws its envoy

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN AND the United States launched a further series of air strikes on Iraq yesterday - mounting raids on targets throughout the country and on the centre of Baghdad.

The city was rocked by two punishing waves of missile attacks. The first shortly after 10pm local time (7pm GMT) saw 13 reported explosions and a second strike, starting at 4am local time today, shook Baghdad with three huge impacts. At least 25 people were reported to have been killed up to yesterday evening, with 75 wounded.

Witnesses reported huge plumes of smoke, glowing orange, from the city centre as the missiles struck. One building close to the Al Rashid international hotel - where many Western journalists are based - was said to have been badly damaged.

British forces played a central role in yesterday's attacks - launching three waves of assaults - in contrast to Wednesday's initial action which was largely an American operation. Tony Blair defended the strikes and said they were aimed at crippling Saddam Hussein's regime.

However, Britain and America's decision to proceed with the assaults triggered fierce criticism of President Bill Clinton in the US, outraged many on the left of the Labour Party and angered Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council. Late yesterday Russia withdrew "for consultation" its American ambassador, Yuli M. Vorontsov.

Despite the criticism, neither Washington nor London showed any sign of backing away - saying the strikes would continue until all the targets had been destroyed. Preliminary assessment from the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence indicated that the attacks had been successful. "Substantial damage was done to a number of targets," said William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary. He said 50 targets had been hit in Wednesday's attacks, including some sites which housed weapons of mass destruction.

Attacks were launched on at least a further 50 targets yesterday. They included Iraqi air defences, airfields and communications centres. A key target was the Baath party headquarters in central Baghdad where United Nations inspectors suspect that material for weapons of mass destruction may be hidden.

The headquarters of Iraqi military intelligence in Baghdad were destroyed, as were several barracks belonging to the Special Republican Guard on the outskirts of the city.

Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, told a news conference in Baghdad: "There is collateral damage in several sites and there are heavy casualties among civilians not only in Baghdad but in other places."

Yesterday's attacks were carried out by American B-52s, British Tornados and US Navy aircraft, and followed bomb-damage assessment from the first strikes. By the early hours of this morning there had been no reports of British or American casualties. "All the Tornados involved in the first wave have returned safely to base while others continue to be involved in other attacks," said Air Marshal Sir John Day.

Later, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said Tornados had been involved in subsequent strikes. Winding up a Commons debate late last night, he told MPs the operation against Iraq was "on-going - UK aircraft are in the air as we speak - and it will continue for as long as necessary".

Mr Blair warned that Britain and America would launch further military strikes if President Saddam rebuilt his capacity to make chemical and biological weapons after the current series of attacks. "Saddam should have no doubt of our continuing resolve," the Prime Minister said.

Both British and American officials have said that future efforts to control President Saddam will involve bombing raids rather than sending UN inspectors back to Iraq. "We have the surveillance to know what is going on," said a source.

As a precaution against retaliation for the attacks, America yesterday closed 40 of its embassies in Africa.

Mr Clinton has come under fierce criticism for the timing of the strikes from congressional Republicans, coming as they did on the eve of an impeachment debate that could end in his removal from power. Last night Congress agreed that the postponed debate should restart this morning in Washington, with a vote being taken on Saturday.

"It's not true," said the President, when asked if the attacks had been intended to draw fire from his political predicament. "What I did was the right thing for the country. I don't think any serious person would believe that any president would do such a thing ... We're going to complete this mission."

Mr Blair told the Commons: "There are suggestions that the timing of military action is somehow linked to the internal affairs of the United States. I refute this entirely."

The Prime Minister won the backing of the Tories, Liberal Democrats and most Labour backbenchers after he told MPs: "This is not directed at the Iraqi people; it is directed at the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein." The Iraqi President was "blind to reason", and "a man to whom a last chance to do right is just a further opportunity to do wrong".

However, the Government sparked outrage in the Commons last night when it employed a little-used procedural device to prevent rebel backbenchers voting against the decision to bomb Iraq following an emergency debate.