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NEWS ANALYSIS

U.S. Aiming for Swift 1-2 Punch in Striking Iraq

November 13, 1998|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As they sift through the list of potential targets for an airstrike on Iraq, Pentagon officials are aiming to diminish President Saddam Hussein's fearsome arsenal and weaken his grip on power without committing the United States to an open-ended military engagement.

The objectives of the mission and the choice of targets under consideration reflect a desire on the part of the military establishment to define goals that are meaningful but also achievable, Defense Department officials said.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, visiting a Navy base in Virginia on Thursday, asserted that any strikes would be "significant."

At the same time, Defense Department officials noted that it is highly difficult to destroy from the air a weapons-development program that has eluded U.N. inspectors operating on the ground.

Rooting out the Iraqi leader's nuclear, biological and chemical arms facilities "has been pretty hard to do, even with inspectors," one official recently conceded. Now, "if we can't do it with inspectors, we'll have to try do it in a different way."

Although top Pentagon officials have not discussed specific targets of the mission under consideration, they have addressed the issue in broad terms during the past year of intensifying friction with Iraq.

The targets are likely to include the 91 sites that U.N. weapons inspectors have sought to monitor closely.

Most are "dual-use" facilities--pharmaceutical and food plants, pesticide and brake-fluid manufacturers--that could be used for making chemical and biological weapons.

The list could also include the "presidential compounds" where weapons inspectors have been denied access or had their movements restricted. By striking these targets, U.S. forces would grind down the industrial base needed to build up Hussein's weapons program.

U.S. officials acknowledge, however, that unless the attackers get lucky, they are not likely to destroy the "recipes" used to make chemical and biological weapons, or the stocks of substances such as VX gas and botulism toxin that Hussein may already possess.

Hussein has succeeded for years in hiding such materials, which are compact, difficult to detect and easily moved.

In addition, U.S. officials have indicated that they will target the infrastructure that contributes to Hussein's ability to maintain control of his country.

This means military command centers; Iraq's half a dozen major secret-police organizations; intelligence service centers; the Special Republican Guard, which functions as a sort of personal palace guard; and some key conventional military assets, such as air defenses, aircraft and missiles, communications centers and tanks.

To frighten Hussein's inner circle, U.S. forces may strike Tikrit, the city that is home to Hussein's family.

Under the rules negotiated at the conclusion of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein was permitted to build short-range missiles. But now these facilities will probably become targets, thus preventing Hussein from using them as the foundation for a program of longer-range missiles.

The Iraqis have operated under the threat of possible military strikes for some time and have had ample opportunity to try to shield potential targets.

Hussein may have dispersed key elements of his forces, including the estimated 26,000 members of the Special Republican Guard.

Yet with intelligence from spy planes and satellites, the United States may have been able to track the location of at least some materiel, analysts say.

Some analysts believe that the most promising targets may be the secret-police apparatus, including the Special Security Service that plays a critical role in keeping Hussein in power.

"We could really cramp his style by hitting this apparatus," said John Pike, who follows intelligence issues for the Federation of American Scientists. "It might be our greatest chance of getting rid of him."

As they prepare for a possible attack, top administration officials have been trying to make sure that public expectations for strikes are neither too high nor too low. Although they want to scare Hussein, they do not want the public to expect results that may not come quickly, or at all.

Pentagon officials say a campaign designed to coerce Hussein into compliance with U.N. mandates would open the door to a prolonged military engagement--and allow the opponent to influence the outcome.

Making compliance the objective "puts all the initiative, the decisive power, into the hands of your adversary," a senior Defense Department official said. "At the end of the day, he can simply say no and deny you success."

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