Raid on Iraq: Bombers' targets are key to political change

First Edition

Washington - Heavy air attacks on the Republican Guard divisions would be politically damaging to President Saddam Hussein, but more limited raids on anti-aircraft positions in the southern no-fly zone do not strike at the basis of his power. President Saddam's calculation appears to be that he can sustain this level of retaliation.

The lesson of the Gulf war was that massed air attacks were less effective than appeared at the time. They did demoralise the Iraqi army based in and around Kuwait but they did not destroy it. In the aftermath of the war the Iraqi army still had some 2,500 tanks, while the number of dead probably did not exceed 20,000.

Iraq was able to rebuild its economic infrastructure more quickly than expected by patching up the electric power stations and oil refineries. Sanctions have squeezed Iraqis but official rations have so far proved sufficient to prevent mass starvation. Outside the three provinces of Kurdistan the government is in complete control.

Will the air raids now under way be any more effective in bringing down President Saddam than the much heavier assault two years ago? No doubt they will increase misgivings among Iraqi officials who think that once again, as in 1980 when he attacked Iran and 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, President Saddam has miscalculated the reaction to his moves, this time teasing the US by moving about his anti-aircraft missiles and removing military equipment from Umm Qasr naval base, now officially part of Kuwait.

Iraqi diplomats had warned Baghdad that the transition would be a dangerous period. They argued that President Bush would do everything to prevent his last days in office being marred by further humiliations by Iraq. President-elect Bill Clinton, attacked by the Republicans during the election campaign as being equivocal on the Gulf war, would want to show that he was just as tough as his predecessor.

Possibly the warning was ignored in Baghdad or else President Saddam thinks that if he could survive the allied onslaught in January and February 1991, then he can survive anything they throw at him today. Not only has there been no popular resistance to his rule again with the exception of the Kurds - since the March uprisings of 1991, but the army has stayed loyal. Not a single military unit has mutinied and it is unlikely that a coup d'etat could succeed without the involvement of commanders from within President Saddam's inner circle, to most of whom he is related.

The problem for the allies is that air power is a very blunt instrument for producing a political impact. During the Gulf war the allied air forces claimed that new technology, the 'smart' bomb and the laser-guided missile, had given air attack an accuracy it had not had in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam. In the first days of the Gulf war this was true. When the allies attacked big and visible targets like the telecommunications towers they usually hit them.

The oil refinery in south Baghdad was the object of repeated strikes by Tomahawk missiles, and a great black cloud of oily smoke hovered over the city for weeks. Planes first dropped green metallic thread on the power stations to short the power lines and then missiles struck at the turbines. Within days the whole of Iraq was without electricity.

But the accuracy and the damage was deceptive. Smaller targets, such as secret police buildings, were often missed. Refineries and power stations were repaired. The US navy was later to admit its success rate with ship-to-ground missiles was only around 50 per cent. Civilian casualties were also heavy when allied planes began strafing roads and bridges. A factory that the allied air command claimed was producing poisoned gas was gutted. The Iraqis claimed it produced nothing but milk powder, and close inspection showed this was almost certainly true. The splintered desks in the wreckage of the factory's offices all contained papers relating to the factory's troubled history, indicating that it did exactly what the Iraqis claimed. The destruction of anti-aircraft missile sites in south Iraq will not affect the military situation on the ground. There are limited guerrilla attacks in the triangle between Basra, Nasiriyah and Amara, but these are primarily by Marsh Arabs. In the cities the Iraqi army is in total control, so the loss of some missile sites will be largely symbolic with no change in the balance of military power in the region. The one danger is that Iraq could respond by attacking into Kurdistan.

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