Iraq: US prepares sweeping air strikes on military targets

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The United States is proposing an intensive bombing campaign against Iraq next month, say officials in Washington. Patrick Cockburn reports on the new attempt to bring Saddam Hussein to heel by the use of air power alone.

The shape of the impending American and British air attack on Iraq is becoming clearer. It would last for three or four days and be directed largely against military targets, especially those linked to Iraq's strategic weapons programme, say officials in Washington. The US has also officially told Russia that a military attack is impending.

Insisting that "the diplomatic string is rapidly running out", State Department spokesman James Rubin said the US did not object to Russia sending a special envoy to Iraq but was pessimistic about Moscow being able to persuade Baghdad to comply with United Nations demands for unfettered inspections of weapons sites. "The issue is not who the messenger is. The issue is the message: compliance, compliance, compliance and no more excuses," Mr Rubin said.

An armada has gathered in the Gulf including HMS Invincible, the British aircraft carrier, and two American carriers with 300 aircraft. Iraqi Republican Guard units have begun to disperse around Iraq to minimise their casualties, according to Russian sources.

A meeting of top White House security advisers meeting at the weekend decided that President Saddam is unlikely to allow UN weapons inspectors to operate freely. They therefore have little option but to launch attacks, but have no political plans on what to do after an air assault, say diplomats.

The attack is likely to be made by US and Britain and not by the UN as a whole because of the Russian veto. However, France appears to be backing away from its earlier opposition to military action. French President Jacques Chirac said yesterday in Delhi that Iraq must conform with UN resolutions, including the inspections of the Iraqi leader's palaces.

The problem for the US and Britain is that it is not clear what their air offensive is expected to achieve other than punishing the Iraqi leader and demonstrating American and British military strength. The destruction of presidential palaces will look good on CNN television, but will not really change the balance of power between Iraq and the rest of the world. Militarily airpower was less successful in the Gulf war than advertised by the allied armies, weapons manufacturers and the media. Iraq lost over 2,000 tanks but a US airforce study showed that only 10 per cent were hit from the air and the rest were abandoned by their crews.

An air campaign is likely to be more constricted by lack of political support at home or in the Middle East than in 1991. Neither Washington nor London will want to suffer casualties, but this has consequences for the military effectiveness of their attacks. In the Gulf war the motto was: "No Iraqi target was worth an allied plane or aircraft." In practice this meant no low level attacks.

Iraqi anti-aircraft defences - with their paucity of electronic countermeasures - are unlikely to have improved since 1991. It may also be politically impossible for the US and Britain to repeat their previously successful attack on the civilian infrastructure by targeting power stations.

How will Saddam Hussein respond to a renewed air war? Since confrontation with the UN restarted last November he has pursued a policy of increasing tension but not to the point of provoking war. This tactic might still serve his purpose. If he suddenly allowed inspection of his palaces it would be difficult to justify an attack on him. His best strategy is probably to try to exhaust his opponents by constant crises resolved at the last minute.

His military options are limited. He could threaten Kuwait again, as he did in 1994, but this would serve to reunite the Gulf war coalition. He could also move into Kurdistan, but this has the same disadvantage.

If, as the weapons inspectors allege, the Iraqi leader still has Scud missiles then he could fire them at Israel. But this would both deepen the crisis and justify, in the eyes of world opinion, the prolonged search by the UN inspectors for weapons.

Having rattled sabres and manoeuvred aircraft carriers so vigorously in the Gulf it was always going to be difficult for the US to settle for one more fudged compromise with President Saddam. His alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky makes it even more likely that President Bill Clinton will want to be seen as a leader who makes decisive use of American military strength.