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Attacking Iraq: Many Differ on Final Aims

Likelihood of US strike looms as last-ditch diplomacy plays out. But what is yardstick for 'success'?

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1998



WASHINGTON

It is likely to begin as it did in 1991, with the roar of cruise missiles.

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Streaking from American cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, swarms of the earth-hugging projectiles, at a cost of $1.4 million each, will rip across the placid waters of the Persian Gulf at the radars, missiles, guns, and command posts of Iraq's air defenses.

About the same time, United States planes carrying bombs, antiradar rockets, and electronic jamming gear may join the assault on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's only defensive system.

But once the biggest Iraqi threat to US and British aircraft is smashed, what next? And what will be the cost in civilian casualties if Saddam employs "human shield" tactics? These are among the key questions being provoked by the growing likelihood that President Clinton will order Iraq attacked in coming days for continuing to obstruct the United Nations' hunt for Baghdad's biological- and chemical-warfare programs.

Few experts advocate anything short of a massive campaign of missile and air attacks against Iraq's suspected weapons sites and the institutions that support Saddam's repressive rule. But there is disagreement on what the final aim should be.

Some experts assert that the US will only have enough time and firepower to force the Iraqi leader into retracting his threat to halt cooperation with the monitors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). This appears to be the strategy favored by the Clinton administration. "If one has to resort to military options, we should not overestimate what they will in fact achieve," Defense Secretary William Cohen said over the weekend.

To try to achieve more than compelling Saddam's compliance with UNSCOM would strain the 26,000-strong American air, sea, and land force in the Gulf, would weaken allied support, and fuel international opprobrium as civilian casualties mounted, some experts assert. Many point out that Gulf War bombings were unable to hit Saddam or even loosen his grip.

How far should action go?

The US should "stop with the strikes when Iraq makes clear that it will operate with UNSCOM," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute. "To go any further ... is to depend on sheer luck."

But others insist the US must go further, and that any operation be intense enough to destroy the "infrastructure" that sustains Saddam's regime, thereby encouraging his overthrow by opponents in the military.

That means hitting the facilities of his numerous intelligence services, the elite Republican Guard, and Iraq's communications networks. If Pentagon planners know his location, they should also target Saddam himself, these experts say.

"We have to be willing to do something for a week or 10 days as our initial point of departure," says Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. "What you have to do is not even let Saddam come up for air. Nothing would be worse than to hit him [but] allow him to brush the dust off and then thumb his nose at us again."