Iraq Crisis: Pentagon hints at blitz on Saddam's military elite

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The US is beginning to spell out the details of a sustained air attack on Iraq. Baghdad accuses the chief UN arms inspector of sabotaging efforts to defuse the situation by saying that Iraq could "blow away Tel Aviv". Patrick Cockburn examines the escalating crisis.

The Pentagon says its planners may target elite Iraqi military formations "of importance to Saddam [Hussein]" as part of a sustained bombing campaign.

Iraq, meanwhile, accused Richard Butler, head of the UN arms inspection team, of trying to torpedo a Russian diplomatic initiative by saying that it had sufficient botulinus and anthrax to destroy Tel Aviv. The Israeli press says Iraq has enough biological weapons to arm 25 surface-to-surface missiles. The Israeli government says that such an attack would be more dangerous for Iraq than Israel.

As Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, today arrives in Europe to lobby for support for an air offensive, William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, was preparing to depart for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf to explain American plans.

"Richard Butler is talking off the top of his head in saying that Iraq might attack Tel Aviv," Laith Kubba, an Iraqi opposition intellectual, said. "Saddam is not suicidal. But he is a gambler and he has clearly taken personal charge of the crisis in recent months. For the previous seven years he was more concerned with his survival in power. Experience shows he understands Iraqi internal security, but not international relations."

Mr Kubba argues that if President Saddam thinks he is going to be the target of a sustained bombing campaign aimed at Iraqi military installations, he may well back down and renew his challenge to the UN arms inspectors later. On the other hand, as in 1980 when he invaded Iran, and 1990, when he invaded Kuwait, he has habitually underestimated his opponents and the strength of their reaction to his moves.

Exaggerated accounts of President Clinton's domestic difficulties and the Arab world's anger over the collapse of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians might also lead President Saddam to seek confrontation. Within Iraq his position appears strong with genuine popular anger towards the US. However, the inner core of his regime may be dissatisfied by the failure so far of President Saddam to end the confrontation with the US and its allies.

The US, supported by Britain, is clearly planning a more intense air bombardment than at any time since the Gulf War. Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, said the US has not finalised its plans but targets being considered include Republican Guard units, intelligence and command-and-control centres. He said another option was "to go after the stockpiles [of biological or chemical weapons themselves.

Russian officials say that Iraqi elite military units have been scattered around the country. That is confirmed by the Iraqi press. It is difficult to see how biological or chemical toxins or the means to deliver them could be targeted since the present crisis is about the successful efforts of Iraq to conceal them.

President Saddam is most likely to respond to bombing by permanently banning the UN weapons inspectors, who can only operate in Iraq with his compliance. Washington appears to conceive of the bombing campaign more as a means of punishing President Saddam than as part of a political campaign to get rid of him.

The Iraqi leader may be over-confident after successfully staging a crisis with the US last November during which Washington had difficulty in getting support in the Security Council or the Arab world. This time the US is moving more methodically. France and China may not join Russia in vetoing a resolution on the use of force in the security council, say Russian officials. In his annual State of the Union address to Congress in Washington President Clinton warned President Saddam: "You cannot defy the will of the world."

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Viktor Posuvalyuk, the deputy Russian Foreign Minister, met Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, for talks yesterday. The Russians are believed to be trying to persuade President Saddam to open some, if not all, of his palaces for weapons inspection.