WASHINGTON — If U.S. officials follow through with plans for the largest air assault on Iraq since 1991, they will be trying to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's hand in a way that has not been tried since the Persian Gulf War--and that by itself has never really worked.
In the past seven years, the United States has used airstrikes to punish Hussein or to deter him from aggressive moves with his military. Now it seeks to compel the Iraqi dictator to accept resumed United Nations inspections of his weapons programs.
"There is a big difference between deterring or punishing and compelling," said Zalmay Khalilzad, a top Pentagon military planner in the Bush administration. "And so there's a lot of uncertainty about how this mission would turn out."
The last effort by the U.S.-led coalition to force Hussein's hand in this way did not succeed: At the start of the Persian Gulf War, the allies bombed Hussein's forces almost around the clock for 39 days and failed to persuade him to remove his troops from Kuwait.
Uncertainty over the outcome of new airstrikes is rattling many diplomats at the United Nations, who wonder if a sustained attack would be worse than no action at all. Some, including U.S. allies, fear airstrikes could halt the U.N. monitoring program altogether, while leaving Hussein in power and free to resume development of illegal weapons.
"Unless they kill Saddam Hussein himself, which would take an extraordinarily lucky hit, [bombing] won't change anything . . . ," said one European diplomat. "Bombing a few barracks or palaces is not going to do the job. Unless you want to launch a ground war, you have to recognize there is an Iraqi regime and we have to deal with it."
U.S. officials acknowledge the difference between this possible mission and others since the Gulf War. "This would be harder," said Kenneth H. Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman.
Yet, while there is no guarantee that bombs and missiles can force Hussein to cooperate, U.S. officials argue that taking no steps to eliminate his chemical and biological weapons is worse because it would leave him with the power to wage devastating war in the region.
While plans for a military mission--which officials have hinted could begin as early as next week--are not complete, U.S. officials have been considering primary as well as secondary goals for any attack.
If their first aim, to coerce Hussein's cooperation, doesn't succeed, they want to destroy as much of his military might as possible to reduce his future threat. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the region, say the U.S. also wants to hit targets close to Hussein's heart.
Analysts interpret those statements to mean the aerial campaign would focus on: suspected biological and chemical weapons sites; Hussein's Special Republican Guard, which provides his personal protection; buildings that house his dozen or so special security forces; the 250-craft Iraqi air force; and some military infrastructure, such as command-and-control centers, communications headquarters and air-defense networks.
"Can you actually destroy all the biological [warfare] equipment? Basically, no," said a source close to the U.N. weapons commission, adding that the manufacture of chemical and biological warfare agents does not require large and elaborate facilities.
Further, equipment used for legitimate purposes, such as making pharmaceuticals, can be converted for illicit weapons use. The U.N. three years ago destroyed Iraq's main biological weapons plant--a factory that also made proteins for animal feed and pesticides. But today, the U.N. scrutinizes Iraqi hospitals, university laboratories and even a brewery because equipment at those sites can be adapted to weapons development.
The commission source noted that airstrikes could risk spreading chemical or biological agents to nearby civilians, though that danger would not necessarily be great. Agents stored in buildings or basements probably would be contained by the collapsing structure; toxins released in the air probably would be harmful only to those within a few hundred yards.
While U.S. forces in the region now include two aircraft carriers, more than 300 warplanes and about 30,000 troops, there are daunting difficulties for a prospective air campaign. Chemical and biological weapons can be moved or hidden. The Special Republican Guard units can be dispersed. And Hussein showed in the Gulf War that he is unfazed by attacks on his military infrastructure.
And though Zinni and other officials insist that U.S. military alliances in the region are solid, it remains to be seen whether all key neighbors would let American craft use their land bases, which would be needed by heavier aircraft such as the F-117 and B-52 bombers. "That remains an open question," said Richard Haass, President Bush's top Middle East analyst at the National Security Council during the Gulf War.