Blitz on Saddam is just 12 days away

US military planners pick their date for air strikes as Yeltsin attacks Clinton and warns of impending world war
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The Independent Online
AIR STRIKES against targets in Iraq will start in 12 days time on 17 February, if current diplomatic moves to defuse the crisis fail, sources in Washington have told The Independent. Planners consider this the optimum date for an attack, although President Bill Clinton would have to give the final go-ahead.

The date would allow the United States and Britain to say that they have given ample time for diplomatic moves by Russia and France to bear fruit. Asked about the timing of military action this week Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said: "It is not days and not months. That means weeks."

By then the US will have three carriers in the Gulf, and Britain one. Kuwait appears to have agreed to allow aircraft to operate from its territory. William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary, says that the intensity of the air attack "would be far more that what has been experienced in the past, certainly since the Persian Gulf war".

The US says it will bomb facilities for making or storing biological and chemical weapons, command-and-control centres and special units of the Republican Guard. But this list is vaguer than it looks. The United Nations weapons inspectors - Unscom - have suspicions about buildings that might be used to make or keep unconventional weapons, but no proof. The destruction of almost any large building in Iraq could be justified by saying it holds unconventional weapons.

The present location of command-and-control centres is also uncertain. General Wafiq al-Sammara'i, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, who went into exile in 1994, said: "All official headquarters for intelligence, mukhabarat [general security] and defence will have been evacuated and moved to new hiding places." This has been standard Iraqi military practice since the Iran-Iraq war, other Iraqi sources say.

The third target mentioned publicly by the Pentagon is the special Republican Guard unit. This is the praetorian guard of President Saddam Hussein and is said by Unscom to be in charge of concealing unconventional weapons and the means to deliver them. General Sammara'i says: "It is a complete division with about 20,000 men and 50 tanks deployed mainly in Baghdad."

The problem for US and British military planners is that to strike all three targets effectively is not just a matter of accuracy but of good intelligence. It would be easy for Iraq to conceal its remaining non-conventional weapons, which even the highest estimates put at 75 missiles and some warheads.

Action against the Republican Guard might be easier. But it is stationed mainly in Baghdad and could not be hit without causing civilian casualties. From Mr Cohen's remarks, it appears that the US and Britain will not target the civilian infrastructure such as power stations and oil refineries, as they did in 1991.

There were signs yesterday that the Russian diplomatic initiative might defuse the crisis as it did last November. President Boris Yeltsin emphasised how seriously he took developments in the Gulf by warning that US actions might lead to a world war. He said that President Clinton was "acting too noisily". He did not spell out how such a world war might begin.

In Iraq there were indications that President Saddam might compromise. He has reportedly agreed to give access to eight of his palaces, with a new formula of five inspectors appointed by each of the 15 members of the UN Security Council plus two from each of the 21 countries of the UN Special Commission (Unscom).

The US and Britain are likely to dismiss the Iraqi plan as an attempt to marginalise Unscom. They will also suspect that President Saddam would like to repeat his tactic of last November by defusing the present crisis, but repeating the challenge to the UN inspectors in a month or two. Rather than face repeated confrontations with Iraq they may wish to start military action in less than two weeks' time.

Crisis reports, pages 12-13