Iraq: Baghdad runs risk of drubbing by West

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The Independent Online
In political terms, Saddam Hussein may see his current clash with the UN as a `win-win' confrontation. But by any military reckoning, as Rupert Cornwell explains, he is bound to end up on the losing side if the United States and its allies do use force.

Since its crushing defeat in the Gulf War, Iraq has rebuilt its shattered air defence system with some success, according to Western analysts. In the SA-2 and the more modern SA-6, it possesses surface-to-air missiles capable of downing the U-2 spy plane operating on behalf of the United Nations and which ventured into Iraqi airspace yesterday.

In practice, the ancient and lumbering U-2, with a top speed of just 420 knots, would be escorted by a large protective force of fighters, as well as aircraft carrying anti-radiation missiles, electronic warfare equipment and airborne warnings systems. Allied offensive forces, overwhelmingly American, are the most modern in the skies.

The main thrust would presumably come from the Tomahawk cruise missiles which can be launched from any one of seven US warships currently in the northern Gulf area, including the cruisers Port Royal and Lake Champlain and four destroyers.

It was Cruise missiles which were used in the last attack by the US against Iraq in autumn 1996, in the shape of two separate strikes against military targets to punish Saddam for his incursions into the no-go areas in Kurdish northern Iraq, and in the strike in June 1993 in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George Bush during a visit to Kuwait. If the present confrontation does lead to air strikes, it would be the fourth such attack by the US-led coalition since the end of the Gulf War in March 1991.

But if US commanders decide to risk piloted combat planes, they also have a wide range of options. Leading the current US deployment is the 95,000-ton aircraft carrier Nimitz, carrying 75 war planes including 36 F-18 Hornet attack jets and 14 F-14 Tomcat fighters. In addition substantial US air power is based in Saudi Arabia.

The main supporting role in any strike would be played by Britain, which has 12 GR-1 Tornados in the region all equipped with laser guided bombs and air-to-air missiles. Britain also has two warships in the Gulf.