WASHINGTON — U.S. warships pounded an Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad with cruise missiles early today in retaliation for what President Clinton called a "particularly loathsome and cowardly" attempt to assassinate former President George Bush.
The attack, described by the Administration as a "measured and proportional" response, was ordered after FBI and CIA investigators determined that Iraq's spy agency was behind a thwarted car bomb plot intended to kill Bush during a triumphal visit to Kuwait city April 14-16. Iraq has denied any connection with a plot to kill Bush.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin described the missile strike as a "wake-up call" to President Saddam Hussein. But he said no attempt was made to kill the Iraqi dictator.
A senior White House official said the attack was designed to demonstrate to Hussein that he must pay a high price for "state-sponsored terrorism." But, he conceded, it is far from certain that Hussein got the message.
"It is a strong message. It is directed at the heart of his capability . . . but to try to figure out what is in Saddam Hussein's mind is the path to madness," he said.
Aspin and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon press conference that 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles, fired from a warship in the Red Sea and another in the Persian Gulf shortly after midnight Baghdad time, crashed into a large intelligence service complex in downtown Baghdad early today. Another missile misfired.
Powell said a detailed assessment of the damage was not immediately available but that an early assessment indicated that "all 23 performed as they were supposed to" and that they "landed in the target area where they are supposed to be." The $1.25-million missiles each carry 1,000 pounds of high explosives.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government said today that missiles hit a residential area, killing several civilians and wounding many others, Reuters news agency reported from the Iraqi capital.
"The cowardly aggression martyred several civilian citizens in houses near the headquarters and wounded many others, including women and children," said a statement from the ruling Revolution Command Council.
The target was selected because the Administration said Iraqi intelligence was behind the plot to kill Bush. Officials said the attack was planned for nighttime on a weekend to minimize both civilian and military deaths. But Aspin said the facility is manned around the clock, so some casualties were likely.
A senior Administration official said computer and communications facilities were damaged in the attack.
"None of the stuff is not reconstructable over some period of time, but this should be a blow to their intelligence operation for some time," the official sad.
The Navy was ready to launch the attack Friday but the White House ordered a delay to avoid the Muslim Sabbath.
In an address to the nation from the White House, Clinton said that retaliation was inevitable once U.S. agencies became convinced that Iraq was responsible for the plot against Bush.
"From the first days of our revolution, American security has depended on the clarity of this message, 'Don't tread on us,' " Clinton said. "A firm and commensurate response was essential to protect our sovereignty, to send a message to those who engage in state-sponsored terrorism, to deter further violence against our people and to affirm the expectation of civilized behavior among nations.
"The Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans," Clinton said. "We could not and have not let such action against our nation go unanswered."
At the Pentagon, Aspin said Saudi Arabia and a number of other governments were informed of the attack but were not asked to take part.
The comments were an implicit response to critics of the Administration's Bosnia policy who have complained that Clinton has adopted a policy of "multilateralism" that masks a U.S. retreat from world leadership. In Bosnia, Clinton determined that the United States would not act on its own.
"These actions were directed against the Iraqi government, which was responsible for the assassination plot," Clinton said. "Saddam Hussein has demonstrated repeatedly that he will resort to terrorism or aggression if left unchecked. Our intent was to target Iraq's capacity to support violence against the United States and other nations and to deter Saddam Hussein from supporting such outlaw behavior in the future."
He said he found nothing about the plot surprising, considering Iraq's record of aggression and terrorism. "But this attempt at revenge by a tyrant, against the leader of the world coalition that defeated him in war, is particularly loathsome and cowardly."
Clinton called for the U.N. Security Council to consider the Iraqi plot against Bush. A meeting was scheduled for this afternoon.