Iraq hurt by bombs, but can US topple Saddam?

Bomb targets were more than military. US tried to hit at Iraqi leader's key groups

When the last American bomb burst over Baghdad with a deafening blast on Saturday night, the 70-hour war against Iraq had ended, but a new US aim to undermine Saddam Hussein may have also been sounded.

The US claims its 400-plus missiles achieved the primary aim of inflicting "significant damage" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and command structure. But some bombs hit targets that could also help hurt Saddam's key supporters. Yet in Baghdad, Western and Iraqi analysts say that his hand may have, in fact, been strengthened by the strikes.

"Anytime Saddam Hussein is still alive or in power, he is a winner," says a Baghdad-based diplomat who asked not to be identified further.

"The question is: What does the US expect to do the day after strikes?" he says.

For more than two decades, Saddam Hussein has been the quintessential survivor. And analysts here say they see no indication that the air campaign - which cost some $300 million in cruise missiles alone, and set Iraq's missile program back by a year, according to Defense Department officials - has loosened Saddam's grip on power.

Still, the mix of targets indicates that the airstrikes may have been planned to serve a larger design. Of the 100 or so targets, only 11 dealt with weapons of mass destruction, while half were linked to the security and military apparatus.

Targets close to regime

The Iraqi president's hometown of Tikrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad, reportedly came under special bombardment to send a message to the ruling clan that they were not invulnerable.

Republican Guards and Special Republican Guard units - believed to be the columns of support upon which the regime rests - were also heavily targeted.

US and British planes, furthermore, dropped leaflets over Iraq to warn the regular Army to stay out of the conflict. The aim may have been to drive a wedge between the Army and elite troops.

But most Iraqis don't seem to blame their leadership for causing the attacks. And President Clinton has made clear that the airstrikes were not directed at the people.

"The regime is still strong, and the support of Iraqis is stronger, because people realize that the people who are talking about their suffering are really those [Mr. Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair] who are increasing their suffering," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad.

That view is echoed is by Sir Peter de la Billiere, former commander of British forces in the Gulf War, who told the BBC that attempts to "bomb people into submission" make them defiant. "In general terms, it is likely to strengthen Saddam in his position," General Billiere said.

On Saturday, Clinton laid out a strategy of containment for dealing with Saddam's regime:

* A beefed-up US military presence will remain on alert for any attempt to rebuild Iraq's illicit weapons or threaten neighboring countries or ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq.

* Tough United Nations sanctions, which Clinton said have already cost Iraq $120 billion in lost oil revenues, will be maintained.

* The US hopes that weapons inspectors will be able to return to Iraq to keep chemical and biological weapons in check. But on Saturday, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan ruled out any future role for the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM): "The commission of spies is behind us. It has no mission," he said.

Other options are being considered for the long term. "The best way to end the threat that Saddam poses," Clinton said Saturday, " is for Iraq to have a different government." Opposition groups - though widely dismissed as fragmented and weak - will be supported "prudently and effectively."

Clinton pledged that the US would work toward a global consensus about how to help establish an Iraqi government "worthy of its people."

Search for new monitoring mechanism

Another solution being considered among analysts here is a new mechanism to monitor and prevent the building of proscribed weapons. Analysts say it might be accepted by Iraq, despite its declaration of the end of UNSCOM inspections.

A well-defined monitoring mechanism, linked to the eventual lifting of UN sanctions, "is the only way" to contain such Iraqi ambitions in the future, says the Baghdad-based diplomat.

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