WASHINGTON — U.S. warships, acting two years to the day after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, unleashed a barrage of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a nuclear fabricating plant on the outskirts of Baghdad on Sunday in a continuing effort to force Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. resolutions.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the attack on the Zaafarniyah plant, 13 miles outside the Iraqi capital, "makes the point to the people of the country, as well as to the government, that we are demanding compliance and that we are willing to enforce the resolutions" of the U.N. Security Council.
Specifically, the new attack--the second in four days--was triggered by Iraq's continued refusal to let U.N. inspectors travel freely throughout the country to seek out facilities suspected of involvement in producing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Earlier Sunday, a U.S. F-16 Falcon fighter jet shot down an Iraqi warplane in its northern "no-fly zone." Fitzwater announced that the American pilot "encountered a threatening" Iraqi warplane at 1:38 a.m. PST and shot it down. Officials later said that it had been downed with a U.S. Amraam missile, marking the second combat use of the high-tech dogfighting weapon.
U.S. and British warplanes flying in the northern no-fly zone also attacked an Iraqi air-defense battery that had fired at allied aircraft.
President-elect Bill Clinton, en route to inaugural festivities here, declared his full support for the strike, which was ordered by President Bush after consultation with U.N. officials and U.S. allies.
"Saddam Hussein should be very clear in understanding that the current and the next Administration are in complete agreement on the necessity of his fully complying with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions," Clinton said.
The impact of the missile strike was not immediately known, Pentagon officials said, because it was made under cover of darkness and allied forces will not be able to assess damage before daylight.
In other developments:
* The Bush White House signaled that more such attacks are likely if Baghdad continues to resist U.N. and allied efforts to enforce Security Council resolutions and if it continues to flout U.N. rules governing the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. Fitzwater described the situation with Iraq as "ongoing" and said that options are being "considered in the most urgent fashion" by the United States and its U.N. allies.
* The United Nations, hours after the attack, formally rejected Iraq's latest response to the U.N. demand that weapons inspectors be guaranteed safe and unconditional freedom of travel inside that country. The inspections team "is still not in a position to fly its aircraft," Tim Trevan, spokesman for the U.N. Special Commission that supervises the inspections, told reporters.
* In Iraq, Hussein's palace on the banks of the River Tigris was sealed off, witnesses said, and he broadcast a speech urging his armed forces: "Attack them wherever you find them. God and his agents and believers will be satisfied with you." Iraq's Information Ministry denied that the Zaafarniyah complex is a nuclear-related site, claiming instead that it is a mechanical engineering facility.
* In Kuwait, an Iraqi soldier was killed and another captured during a firefight that Kuwaiti officials said began after three Iraqi military officers dressed in civilian clothes crossed the border into Kuwait. The three men are believed to have been intelligence officers seeking information on Kuwaiti defensive positions near the border, said Kuwaiti Information Minister Saud al Sabah. The Iraqis opened fire first, he said.
* Iraq has begun dismantling six disputed police posts in Kuwaiti territory on the Iraq-Kuwait border, Saud said. He said U.N. officials notified Kuwait that Iraq is closing down the posts, which had remained within the nine-mile-wide demilitarized zone along the border despite U.N. demands that they be removed by Jan. 15.
The missile attacks, which began just after 10 p.m. Baghdad time, involved Tomahawk cruise missiles--weapons that skim the ground and are guided to their targets by internal computer programs. They cost about $2 million apiece.
Air-defense fire responded to the attack, lighting up the sky over Baghdad in a scene eerily reminiscent of the night the six-week air war began in 1991.
A still-unidentified explosive charge slammed into the lobby of the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, which was housing a conference of international Islamic diplomats and is frequently used by foreign journalists, killing a hotel employee.
Pentagon officials suggested that the damage might have been done by Iraqi antiaircraft fire falling to the ground but would not rule out the possibility that a U.S. cruise missile had gone off course after being hit by antiaircraft fire. Iraq dismissed U.S. disclaimers as "preposterous" and insisted that a U.S. missile had hit the hotel.