WASHINGTON — A WEEK into the Persian Gulf war one aspect of the most intensive bombing campaign in history is becoming clear: It is hitting underpinnings of Iraqi society as well as the planes, tanks, and soldiers of the Iraqi armed forces. Allied warplanes are in no sense attacking civilians on purpose, or targeting civilian industry. But the distinction between what is civilian and what is military can at times be a fine one, and the destruction of power plants, oil refineries, telecommunications, and transportation nets within Iraq seems an attempt to hurt Saddam Hussein where he lives.
In this the bombing campaign is bearing out the comments for which former Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan was fired last September: That ``the cutting edge'' of the opening of the war would be in downtown Baghdad, and that ``if I want to hurt you, it would be at home, not out in the woods someplace.''
While assessments differ on what impact more than 14,000 bombing sorties is having on the civilian population, few dispute that with water, communications, and other basic necessities being temporarily or permanently disrupted the war is reaching into the homes of thousands of people. Reports from refugees fleeing Baghdad to Jordan tell of a city where food is scarce, most commerce has stopped, and electrical power is cut off.
``There aren't many people watching TV in Baghdad,'' said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly.
The allied bombing campaign is nothing like the all-encompassing attacks that devastated German and British cities in World War II. Bombs aren't raining indiscriminately onto residential areas, and nonstrategic industrial sites apparently are remaining untouched.
The administration has gone out of its way to insist that the Iraqi people are not a target. One senior administration official says that from reports he's seen ``people are absolutely astonished at how focused our targeting has been on military targets.''
``When you are hitting the infrastructure, you are degrading the Iraqi military capability,'' says Ambassador Hermann Eilts, former US envoy to Saudi Arabia and now chairman of the Boston University Center for International Relations. ``It is one of those situations in which civilians suffer as well.''
It's clear that the majority of actual bombing sorties - about half the total - are focusing on indisputably military items such as Republican Guard units and military air fields.
But the bombing isn't limited to munitions plants in isolated areas of Baghdad. Pentagon officials have released film showing pinpoint destruction of power plants and oil refineries, among other things.
``We shouldn't be fooled. There is no way to bomb these essential targets for the purposes we seek without imposing tremendous hardships on the people of the country, and especially Baghdad,'' says Charles Winslow, a Middle East expert at the University of Indiana.
President Bush has said on several occasions that bombing targets are being picked in the Pentagon, not the White House. Is the US trying to send the Iraqis a message in hitting civilian/military facilities?
The Pentagon's main aim, points out Marvin Feuerwerger, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is to reduce the ability of Iraq to wage war. Economic targets such as power plants are subsidiary to this goal, he says.
The allied bombing won't eliminate Iraqi industrial capacity but could set their economy back to ``maybe the early 20th century,'' he says.
Others see more aggressiveness behind allied targeting policy. A consultant who works on targeting for the Pentagon says allied strategy may include the overall goal of hindering Iraq's ability to operate as a society. Power plants are legitimate military targets, he says, but the allied military effort is also ``trying to make it clear to the people around Saddam that if they don't stop this there isn't going to be an Iraq.''
Some think the allies have too much in mind with their campaign. Helana Cobban, fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, calls it a ``total war scenario'' that ``bears no relationship to the operational requirements of the liberation of Kuwait.'' Ms. Cobban thinks that if the Pentagon has targeted the will of the Iraqi people, it will backfire. If they are besieged it will cause them to rally around Saddam, she says.
Damage done to the Iraqi economy and civilian infrastructure so far might be repaired in relatively short order, if the war were to end soon. The longer it goes on, though, the more lasting the damage will be. That's because early bombing raids often only damaged targets. Subsequent raids can destroy them for good.