WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies launched limited air strikes Wednesday against half a dozen missile sites in Iraq to punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for his repeated violations of U.N. authority after the Persian Gulf War.
The raids were smaller in scope than had been expected. But President Bush and British Prime Minister John Major asserted that they served notice that the allies will not tolerate any further defiance. Britain and France joined the United States in carrying out the attacks, involving a force of 110 warplanes.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater warned that the allies "will continue to scrutinize Iraqi activity" and "we stand ready to take additional forceful action," if Iraq continues to defy the United Nations.
The White House said that Bush also will send a tank battalion of 1,100 troops from the 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Tex., to join 300 U.S. special operations forces in Kuwait to help serve as a deterrent to further Iraqi incursions into Kuwait.
The Pentagon said the primary targets were four missile-and-radar complexes and two concentrations of mobile antiaircraft missile batteries that Iraq had set up in the "no-fly zone" imposed by the allies last August to protect Shiite Muslims in the south.
The missile batteries became a contentious issue last week after the United States threatened military action against Iraq if Baghdad did not deactivate them within 48 hours. After delaying right up to the deadline, Iraq finally deactivated them over the weekend.
But Iraq quickly posed new provocations, refusing to allow U.N. planes to land on its territory and crossing into a U.N.-patrolled territory along the Kuwaiti border.
Iraq breached the border zone four times this week to recover missiles and materiel confiscated by the allied coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. On Sunday, the Iraqis took four Silkworm missiles, which the United Nations has demanded they return.
U.S. officials said there were no allied casualties in Wednesday's raid. The Iraqis reported four fatalities--three civilians and one soldier--and seven wounded.
Although final reconnaissance reports were not yet in, initial evaluations late Wednesday suggested that the allied warplanes hit all six targets, which were far from any of Iraq's civilian population.
In other developments Wednesday:
* President-elect Bill Clinton, telephoned by Bush as the attack was getting under way, said that he thought "it was the right decision, done in the right way." He added that if Iraq remains defiant after he takes office, "You can't rule out (further use of) force."
* Members of Congress rushed to welcome Wednesday's air strikes against Iraq, with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) suggesting that the move should send a message to those fighting in Somalia and in former Yugoslav republics.
* Moments before the attacks got under way, four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--the United States, Britain, France and Russia--flatly rejected a last-ditch Iraqi attempt to ward off the allied action by agreeing to comply with some U.N. demands.
* U.S. military authorities disclosed that besides previously reported activities against U.S. aircraft in the three weeks that preceded the raid, Iraq sought on Jan. 2 to intercept an American U-2 spy plane flying a reconnaissance mission for the United Nations.
Wednesday's 30-minute attack was decidedly narrower and less-protracted than U.S. strategists had hinted beforehand. Earlier, officials had suggested that the sorties would also hit airfields, communications centers, military headquarters and possibly some infantry units.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, appearing on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, conceded that the scope of the raid was smaller than had been touted--"a relatively restrained and modest kind of option, relative to the things we could have done."
But officials indicated Wednesday that the Administration ultimately had decided to go after only a small portion of the potential targets, presumably to provide allied forces with a way to follow up quickly if Iraq continues to defy U.N. demands.
"This was a discrete entity that was completed," a Pentagon official told reporters at a briefing after the attack. He said that U.S. forces were poised to return and hit other targets if Iraq does not comply.
Analysts also suggested that part of the decision may have reflected opposition by U.S. allies to a more sweeping attack. Although Britain and France participated in Wednesday's sorties, they contributed only token forces. And many other U.S. allies that had sent troops or planes to the Persian Gulf War sat it out this time around.
Press Secretary Fitzwater said that Bush decided Monday to attack Iraq and that he would have launched the air strikes Tuesday if weather in southern Iraq had permitted. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk launched some planes Tuesday, but they had to turn back.