Iraq Bombings: US claims success as Iraq is hit by heavy new wave of air strikes

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN AND the United States launched a second wave of air strikes at Iraq last night, mounting devastating raids around the centre of Baghdad.

The city was rocked by 13 explosions shortly after 10pm local time (7pm GMT) as the first wave of attacks targeted the central district.

Anti-aircraft fire, this time more sustained and more intense than Wednesday's opening salvo, lit up the sky for approximately 15 minutes. Witnesses reported three huge plumes of smoke, glowing orange, from the city centre. One building close to the Al Rashid international hotel - where many Western journalists are based - was said to have been badly damaged during the strike.

Britain played a more prominent role in last night's raids than in any assaults since the 1991-92 Gulf War. But the strikes have triggered fierce criticism of President Bill Clinton in the US, caused unease on the left of the Labour Party and have angered both Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council.

Neither Washington nor London showed any sign of backing away from the strikes, saying that they would continue until all the targets had been destroyed.

The preliminary assessment from the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence was that the first wave, on Wednesday night, had been successful. "Substantial damage was done to a number of targets," said William Cohen, the US Defense Secretary.

The US launched attacks on 50 targets across Iraq, including air defence and airfields, command, control and communications, and sites where United Nations inspectors suspect material for weapons of mass destruction was being hidden. But they are also believed to have hit the most important military and security props of the regime. 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.

"Among the government buildings, they attacked the security police ... They bombarded also the military intelligence services headquarters," Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, told a news conference in Baghdad.

He said there had been civilian casualties. "There is collateral damage in several sites and there are heavy casualties among civilians not only in Baghdad but in other places." One Baghdad hospital alone reported five dead and 30 wounded.

Last night, American B-52s, British Tornados and US Navy aircraft returned to the skies over Iraq, following bomb damage assessment from the first strikes. All the British aircraft returned safely to their base in Kuwait.

"Tornado GR1s are now in action in attacks in Iraq, but I can tell you that 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.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Tornados had taken off not long before the Prime Minister's Commons statement at 3.30pm yesterday. They attacked unspecified Iraq and Baghdad itself later in the day.

Mr Blair warned last night that Britain and the US would launch further military strikes if President Saddam rebuilt his capacity to make chemical and biological weapons after the current wave of attacks. "Saddam should have no doubt of our continuing resolve," he 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 one British source.

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. Yesterday, Congress sought to find a new time for the debate, which was postponed, but there was no agreement between Democrats and Republicans on a suitable time.

"It's not true," said the President, when asked whether 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. And the Republican leaders will have to decide how to do their job. That's not for me to comment on.''

Mr Blair strongly defended President Clinton, insisting that the military action had nothing to do with the moves to impeach him. He 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 MPs after he told the Commons: "This is not directed at the Iraqi people; it is directed at the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein." He said President Saddam was "blind to reason," and "a man to whom a last chance to do right is just a further opportunity to do wrong".

Several Labour MPs expressed their disquiet at Britain's involvement. Tony Benn said the strikes were "a flagrant breach of the UN charter and deeply immoral".