Saddam `lost key advisers' to Desert Fox

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The Independent Online
LAST MONTH'S bombing of Iraq by the United States and Britain claimed the lives of several key figures in the upper echelons of President Saddam Hussein's government and has forced him to take "desperate" measures to retain control of his country, US military officials suggested last night.

In briefings to reporters, American military commanders claimed that the damage caused by the bombardment was more serious than previously thought. The strikes, they said, had killed hundreds of President Saddam's elite Republican Guard and causedwidespread physical damage to his military infrastructure.

They suggested that the impact of the strikes offered one explanation for the recent provocations of American and British jets patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq. Revealing that Iraqi aircraft had violated the zones on 40 occasions in recent weeks, General Anthony Zinni said Iraq was apparently seeking to shoot down one of the patrolling jets in a "desperate attempt ... to claim some sort of victory".

While cautioning that he did not want to "overstate" the internal difficulties faced by President Saddam, General Zinni said Washington "is seeing things that indicate that maybe his grip on control and the ruthlessness by which he attempts to maintain control is slipping". General Zinni is in charge of the US Central Command and was the commander of Operation Desert Fox.

The general said that during the 16-19 December campaign, President Saddam had ordered the executions of military commanders considered to be traitors. He added that, since the bombardment, additional executions had taken place of civilian leaders in southern Iraq.

"If I were a member of Saddam's inner circle, I'd worry," General Zinni said. "I do think we see clear signs that his internal control has been affected. I think we see clear signs that he's worried about it. I think we see clear signs that he's dong things that are desperate". The general warned that new aerial skirmishes were likely. Saddam is "dangerous now and could become more dangerous", he said.

The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, told reporters that "several" key aides to Saddam had been killed during the missile strikes. He declined to name the victimssaying it would compromise US intelligence sources in Iraq. "When you look at some of the intelligence reporting that has come in, [there are] several key individuals that were right in the upper structure that are no longer available to him, to advise or to lead," he said.

He added, meanwhile, that an estimated 600-1,600 soldiers in the Republican Guard had been killed during the assault and that "several times" that number had been wounded.

The briefings will be seen in some quarters as an attempt by the Clinton administration to answer scepticism about the effectiveness of the December strikes. Concern continues to mount that neither Washington nor London has any clear policy to pursue in Iraq in the wake of the attacks.