BAGHDAD, IRAQ — The seven-year effort to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has crossed a line with the US bombardment.
Gone may be the days of waffling negotiations, Iraqi efforts to "cheat and retreat" on disarmament commitments, and sporadic US military buildups to force compliance. On-the-ground United Nations weapons inspections could also be a thing of the past.
From now on, US officials say, the military buildup is for the long haul, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will feel a missile sting anytime Iraq is deemed by Washington to be hiding the means to develop chemical or biological weapons, and the missiles to carry them.
"We will remain ready for an indefinite period of time to maintain our presence," Secretary of Defense William Cohen told a Pentagon news briefing in Washington on Thursday.
Iraqis from the top to the man on the street, however, remain defiant and say that calculation doesn't work. Despite having taken the hardest-hitting attacks since the 1991 Gulf War, most Iraqis have kept their calm and insist that all is normal. Few believe that force alone will ever result in Iraqi compliance.
"This is an endless story," says Dhafer Behnam, a London-educated professional in Baghdad, of Iraq's post-Gulf War experience. "But there is no hatred between people, so you can do better than children, who just bombard anything they don't like."
Setting the tone for his country, Saddam said Thursday that relying on a "long technological arm," as US and British forces have in carrying out the attacks, "is not a measure of bravery."
That line is echoed among ordinary Iraqis, many of whom took to their rooftops during the airstrikes to better view the fireworks display. Targets were located across Iraq, Pentagon officials have reported, and include missile batteries, missile production facilities, Republican Guard barracks, intelligence and security installations, and presidential palaces.
At least one cruise missile seems to have gone astray, landing in the middle of a road and blasting a two-lane-wide crater and a main water line. Children crowded around the scene and collected bits of steel alloy shrapnel from the missile. That shrapnel had burned hotly through the bark of a tree, turning it to ash, and disfigured shop fronts.
Will the new American plan work, and can it be sustained?
For seven years since the Gulf War, UN weapons inspectors were charged with monitoring the end of Iraq's illicit weapons programs. By and large they had made progress, but the past two years have devolved into a series of crises and US military buildups.
Military analysts say that destroying Iraq's once-vast weapons programs by force is almost impossible. And top US officials say that that is not the intention.
"This is a long-term effort," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Wednesday. "It's not going to happen overnight."
But she also noted Thursday that success is not guaranteed. "We will see now whether force can persuade Iraq's misguided leaders to reverse course and to accept at long last the need to abide by the rule of law and the will of the world."
The policy will require that the already substantial US troop strength in the Persian Gulf be boosted and kept on constant alert.
Already the United States has 24,100 military personnel in the Gulf region. There are 22 Navy ships, with eight carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles; and 201 military aircraft, including 15 heavy B-52 bombers on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier has joined the USS Enterprise's group in the Gulf.
The United States has been keeping an eye on Arab reaction in the region. Last month, eight Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, declared that Saddam Hussein would bear the responsibility for any US military action.
But yesterday, Arab states had a muted response to the US strikes on Iraq.