US fires missiles at Baghdad factory: White House says Iraq's obstruction of flight clearance for UN inspectors led to Tomahawk strike

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The Independent Online
The United States yesterday launched a military strike against Iraq, dispatching Tomahawk cruise missiles at a target outside Baghdad.

The attack came shortly before 10pm Iraqi time (about 6.40pm GMT) on the order of President George Bush. He had conferred by telephone from Camp David with allied leaders, including John Major and the French President, Francois Mitterrand. No allied aircraft were involved in the mission.

The decision to strike again was taken in the wake of continuing Iraqi obstruction to United Nations requests for unconditional flight clearance for weapons inspectors to enter the country. There was an aerial skirmish early yesterday in the no-fly zone in northern Iraq, in which one Iraqi aircraft was shot down.

Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, singled out the refusal by Baghdad to guarantee UN inspectors safe passage into Iraq as the principal grievance that led to the attack.

The target was a manufacturing plant 13 miles from the centre of Baghdad, that was described by Mr Fitzwater as a 'nuclear fabrication' centre making components for a nuclear weapons programme. The Iraqi information ministry said the targeted site was a mechanical engineering plant making moulds and dies.

Two women receptionists were killed and 31 people wounded at the Rashid hotel during the attack on the city, a senior Iraqi official said. It was not clear whether the hotel was struck by a cruise missile hit by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, or by a malfunctioning Iraqi surface-to-air missile. The Rashid is the base for the foreign press corps in Baghdad.

Tomahawk missiles were fired at the Zaafaraniyah plant in southern Baghdad, perhaps up to 46 in total, all launched from US navy vessels in the region. Their approach towards Baghdad triggered a dramatic show of anti- aircraft tracer fire in the skies above the city, reminiscent of scenes exactly two years ago when the allies began their assault to repulse President Saddam's army from Kuwait.

The White House claimed that the target was part of a nuclear arms programme, but authoritative UN sources have told the Independent that all nuclear weapons projects in Iraq have long been wiped out by UN inspectors. 'It was not, in and of itself, a high-value installation,' David Kyd, a spokesman for the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday.

Regardless of the target's military significance, the main purpose of the mission appeared to have been to deliver another powerful message to President Saddam to abide by all UN demands, this time by inflicting harm close to the capital. Mr Fitzwater said that the allies wanted to 'make the point to the people of the country and to the government that we remain absolutely determined to enforce compliance' of the UN resolutions.

Some hours after the attack on Baghdad, the UN rejected Iraq's latest conditions for allowing inspection flights into the country, setting the stage for more military strikes against Iraq.

However, there was little sign of a change of mood in Baghdad. President Saddam, in a radio speech after the attack, derided the US action as a 'total failure'. But, in the familiar Iraqi tactic of defiance on one hand and retreat on the other, Iraq last night began dismantling the six police posts on the southern side of the new Iraq-Kuwaiti frontier - two days after the UN deadline for them to go.

Efforts are mounting in Washington, meanwhile, to emphasise that American resolve towards Iraq will not be affected by the White House hand-over of power from George Bush to Bill Clinton at noon on Wednesday. Mr Clinton, kept informed of developments, described the missile strike as 'appropriate and forceful'.

Because yesterday's action was achieved by Tomahawk missiles only, there was no participation by either Britain or France. Mr Major said there was complete agreement among the allies over the latest US attack. The Prime Minister added that President Saddam had been guilty of repeated disobedience in his refusual to comply with Security Council resolutions.

'This is not just occasional disobedience,' Mr Major said. 'It is wilful disobedience of the requirements of the international community, time and time and time again.'

Iraq proposed on Saturday that UN flights could go in on condition that they approached from Jordan in the west, avoiding the disputed no-fly zone in the south. That was rejected by the UN, as was a revised offer suggesting flight paths could cross the southern zone, if allied air patrols ceased while the inspectors made their journey.

At the heart of both the Iraqi proposals was an implicit challenge to the two no-fly zones, imposed to help the allies to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shia Muslims in the south from Iraqi repression.

The Iraqi aircraft shot down earlier yesterday in the northern zone was a MiG-23 which United States officials said was challenging allied aircraft in the area.

Most serious in US eyes was the fact that an anti-aircraft missile battery on the ground in the area was switched on to track the allied jets by radar. That was also fired on by a Harm air-to-surface missile, but officials were uncertain whether the system had been destroyed.

Full assessment of the damage inflicted to the plant in Baghdad is not expected until today.

The results of last Wednesday's raid were disappointing with only one out of four targeted missile batteries being fully knocked out.