Iraq Crisis: Iraqis are forced to pay the price

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The Independent Online
THROUGH THE green haze of a night-vision camera the stark reality of Operation Desert Fox became clear as the night sky above Baghdad erupted with anti-aircraft fire desperately seeking the cruise missiles so feared by the Iraqi regime.

The first round of anti-aircraft explosions were heard at 12.49am Baghdad time (9.49 GMT). A second round of anti-aircraft fire was unleashed at 1am. Orange streaks aimed for the sky as the anti-aircraft guns let loose volley after volley of shots in the familiar criss-cross pattern that presaged the first strikes of the first Gulf War.

The explosions shook the glass windows of the Information Ministry building near the centre of Baghdad, from which foreign reporters are required to work.

CNN journalists reported plumes of smoke in the central district of the capital, which houses many key targets, including Saddam Hussein's presidential palace and the Muthenna military airport.

Half-an-hour earlier the city had echoed to the wailing drone of air- raid sirens - the first real warning to the Iraqi people that the war of words had really ended Only the silent menace of the cruise missiles now remained.

Shortly after the first sirens stopped, cars that had been trundling lazily through the streets sped into a frantic dash to reach the safety of the bunkers where civilians had retreated to await the first thumps that would signify the arrival of Operation Desert Fox.

The anti-aircraft fire ended as abruptly as it began. Two bursts ended without any major impact other than to stun the watching global audience that the threat was now a reality.

At 2.32am Baghdad time there was more sporadic anti-aircraft fire. But at that point the city still had its electricity supply and cars began to return to the streets.

The US attacks had apparently not targeted the state-run television station, which continued to broadcast pictures of President Saddam meeting yesterday with the ruling Baath party officials. The official channels carried no word on the attack. But Baghdad's radio and television reported that Saddam and his top aides had already divided the country into four regional commands to confront air strikes, while the bulk of the Iraqi airwaves were given over to patriotic music.

America revealed it had dispatched more forces to the Gulf last night, buttressing an assault on Iraq that will take several days to complete.

"Any use of force, as the president has indicated, involves risk. To limit the risk to our troops and our allies I am ordering a sharp increase in our forces in the Gulf," William Cohen, the US Defence Secretary said last night.

The US and Britain already had a huge force in the Gulf, ready to strike, from the last time when military action looked likely. Though on a much smaller scale than that assembled for the 1991 Gulf War, it is more than adequate for a sustained aerial attack.

Last night's attacks were launched from US and Royal Air Force aircraft at ground bases in the region, carrier-based aircraft, giant B-52 bombers based on the British island of Diego Garcia and cruise missile launchers on US Navy ships and submarines. They would continue until the target list had been completed, Mr Cohen said, which might take several days.

America has over 200 aircraft and 22 warships in the Gulf. About half of the aircraft are sea-based. The core of the US armada is the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and its carrier battle group. Alongside it is the 31st Marine Expeditionary unit, with the USS Belleau Wood. As well as fighter-bombers and fighters, the carrier-based force includes electronic warfare aircraft, important in jamming Iraqi communications and disabling its air defence system. There are also aircraft based in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The Pentagon said last night that it would send more forces to support this force. The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson is due in the Gulf tomorrow, bringing with it more cruise-missile capable vessels. The ground-based aircraft will be joined by another air expeditionary wing of about 36 aircraft, including F117 Stealth fighter-bombers. The US is also sending a brigade-strength unit of ground forces to strengthen those already present in Kuwait.

Britain has a much smaller force in the Gulf, which is important to America for political reasons: it shows that Washington is not alone. There are 12 Tornado fighter-bombers in Kuwait, six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft in Saudi Arabia and refuelling aircraft in Bahrain. The Type 22 frigate HMS Boxer is on patrol in the Gulf.

The aim is to hit facilities where Iraq is thought to have the capability to manufacture chemical or biological weapons. The air strikes "are deigned to degrade Saddam's capacity to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction, and to degrade his ability to threaten his neighbours," said President Bill Clinton.

But the attacks will also target political and military pillars of the regime with a view to destabilising it. The first category targets are likely to have been communications facilities, air defence sites and command and control sites, to disable Iraqi defences before other targets are hit. The sites where Iraq is suspected to be developing chemical and biological weapons are well-mapped out, but the problem is that no one really knows exactly what is going on at these sites precisely because the UN weapons inspectors cannot get into them.

The US may well attack the special presidential sites which have been suspected of harbouring weapons facilities, but also where Saddam Hussein and his leadership may be present. And it will hit the facilities of the Special Republican Guard, the unit which guards senior political figures, their homes, motorcades and families. Their command HQ, air defence HQ, intelligence HQ and ammunition depot are all in Baghdad, but there are detachments spread across the country - including in the Tikrit region, the home of Saddam Hussein's clan.

The longer-term aim of the air strikes is less clear. The US has said that it wants Saddam Hussein removed, and has increased its backing for the Iraqi opposition outside the country. "The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world," said President Clinton last night. "The best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government... Bringing change in Baghdad will take time and effort."

There is no clear connection between military action now and a broader strategy. The air strikes may weaken the Iraqi leader's regime. But previous strikes have done little to alter the balance of power in the country.