Impending US airstrike calls casualties into question

As the United States prepares for what seems an imminent airstrike against Saddam Hussein, the question once again arises, how many Iraqi lives will be lost?

While military analysts say it's incredibly difficult to estimate casualties, they add the numbers depend on the breadth of the strike and who is the target.

The most recent figures released by White House officials say between "several thousand" and 10,000 Iraqis could have died in last month's aborted air raids - a figure that perplexed military commanders and analysts.

"I would be extremely shocked if we were going for targets where we knew that kind of potential for damage existed," says retired Air Force Col. Bill Hoge, who worked for the command responsible for US air operations in the Middle East.

The large casualty estimates, even with a sustained bombardment, are out of sync with the tactics and philosophies of a precision-strike military, Colonel Hoge says, and perhaps beyond the scope of the force currently arrayed against Saddam.

The United States was on the verge of striking Iraq Nov. 14 before Saddam agreed to allow United Nations weapons inspections to resume in his country. With a fleet of strike aircraft ringing Iraq, the US prepared to punish the recalcitrant dictator by launching a short-duration air campaign.

John Warden, a retired Air Force colonel who conceived of the wide-ranging air attacks during Desert Storm, says he too had difficulty believing the numbers.

Sending a powerful message to Saddam could be easily achieved by killing, at most, several hundred Iraqis, Colonel Warden says. With smart bombs and cruise missiles, the US could greatly harm Iraq's military and weapons sites.

"In today's world, how many people need to die in order to accomplish your political objectives?" Warden asks. "The answer is pretty darn few."

Since Desert Storm, United States military planners have made reducing military and civilian casualties a top priority in operations around the world. During the Balkans air campaign of 1995, for example, NATO jets took extreme care in striking Bosnian Serb military targets.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Ryan, then the operation's air commander, personally approved every target during the two-week campaign to reduce the chance of civilian deaths and risk losing the public-opinion war.

Thousands of dead Iraqis, let alone 10,000, would have made last month's threatened air campaign in some ways more lethal than Desert Storm. Though the Pentagon at first estimated as many as 100,000 Iraqis died in the Gulf War, others later reduced that number to 25,000 and then 10,000.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, says he found the recent casualty figures believable. But to wreak such havoc in a brief attack, the US would surely have to target the Republican Guard, Iraq's elite combat troops.

IN recent years, Iraqis have increased the likelihood of civilian deaths by moving infrastructure and military facilities close to urban areas.

But if the administration numbers are correct, Mr. O'Hanlon says, it calls into question targeting priorities. It's questionable, he adds, how the world would react to such destruction.

The Pentagon and White House refused to comment on the projections or on how US forces would have struck Iraq. But some have speculated the US planned to strike the Republican Guard, increasing the potential loss of life.

The only comment came from a senior Pentagon general who briefed reporters several days after the aborted raid. The general, who did not want to be identified, said the projections "were just estimates and estimates have been wrong before."

Retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, who directed the air campaign during the Gulf War, says only by attacking Iraqi troops in their barracks could the US have killed thousands. But even then, he adds, such a level of carnage would have been difficult to achieve in such a brief attack.

Just as likely, General Horner says, the administration used the estimates to prove to Iraq it is not fooling around. "If they want to say 10,000 people could have died as a means of saying, 'We were dead serious,' I have no problem with that."

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