Raid on Baghdad: Tomahawk signals limits of US power

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The Independent Online
TOMAHAWK sea-to-ground missiles, which in daylight look like black torpedoes as they skim over Baghdad, have become the US weapon of choice against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein. They are usually accurate against a large and identifiable target. Unlike aircraft they contain no US pilots to be shot down and displayed on Iraqi television.

But the Tomahawks are also a symbol of the limits of US action against Present Saddam and the frustration of policy towards Iraq. This is, after all, the second time that the Military Intelligence headquarters in Iraq has been attacked by the US. The first time was during the Gulf war and the raid notably failed to reduce the effectiveness of Iraqi intelligence.

At 4.22pm US eastern time on Saturday two US ships, the USS Chancellorsville in the Gulf and the USS Peterson in the Red Sea, fired 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Military Intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the headquarters was fully operational and played a role in plotting the abortive assassination plot against George Bush, the former president.

This may be so, though during the Gulf war most of the easily identifiable headquarters buildings such as the defence and foreign ministries were evacuated to other quarters. It became standard Iraqi military practice during the Iran-Iraq war for all civilian and military agencies to have alternative headquarters. In January and February 1991 Tomahawk missile strikes on smaller and less identifiable Iraqi security buildings on the other side of the Tigris from the military HQ often missed their targets.

How effective are the missiles? Pentagon officials say 16 missiles were on target and seven missed the Military Intelligence complex. Gen Powell said: 'The majority hit their intended aim points. The front wing of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters has pretty much been destroyed and that was our intention.'

Iraq said its air defences in Habaniya shot down one of the missiles. Television showed Iraqi experts defusing a rocket. Habaniya is 37 miles west of Baghdad. Sirens in Baghdad sounded about five minutes before the first explosion hit.

Gen Powell said the intelligence HQ was chosen as a target because it was the arm of the Iraqi government most directly linked to the Bush plot. Les Aspin, the Defense Secretary, later gave a more detailed picture of damage, saying the main wing of the HQ had collapsed, as had the building housing communications and commuters. Other buildings in the complex had holes in them.

Gen Powell said: 'What we didn't want to do is go all over Baghdad blowing up headquarters and palaces and other targets that might result in a lot of civilian casualties.' Iraqi television has shown pictures of some civilian houses destroyed, presumably by the three missiles which went astray, and said at least three civlians had been killed. The military intelligence HQ is surrounded by a wall and the surrounding area is prosperous, with not only the homes of wealthy Iraqis but also some government buildings. There is a special complex for government ministers close by.

A military concern for the United States is how and when Iraq might retaliate. The Iraqi air force is no longer very effective and the US and its allies have total air superiority. Although Iraq's Scud missiles proved very effective in the war, these are meant to have been destroyed by United Nations inspectors or the Iraqis as part of the ceasefire agreement. The most dangerous Iraqi response from the US point of view would be a ground attack into Kurdistan to recapture the provinces of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, which the Kurds control.

The US is strengthening its air patrols over Kurdistan. It is also moving the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt from the eastern Mediterranean through the Suez canal towards the Gulf. The USS Eisenhower was also scheduled to go to the Gulf area in the near future but the Pentagon was unable to confirm if it was still going. Gen Powell said that Iraqi air defence 'is not an especially formidable system'. He said 'we gave it a good whack' in January when the US attacked a complex allegedly connected with the Iraqi nuclear programme.

Iraq still has powerful ground forces, with some 2,500 tanks and 500,000 men. It could therefore easily take the main Kurdish cities, though allied air power could inflict casualties. But over the past two years President Saddam's tactic has been to keep prodding his enemies to show he is still in business. When this prodding forces a response he then goes quiet for a few weeks or months rather than retaliating directly. Then the whole process starts again.

(Photograph and map omitted)

Leading article, page 17

Stripping the emperor, page 19