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Civilian Killings Would Be Minimal, Defense Officials Say

The use of 'smart' and smaller bombs might keep casualty numbers down. 'But there will be some,' warns a Central Command source.

March 06, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. defense officials predicted Wednesday that they would minimize civilian casualties if there is a war with Iraq, despite Pentagon plans to unleash an intense bombing campaign, the presence of human shields in Baghdad and the prospect of urban warfare.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, described a war featuring a list of targets that has been honed and vetted over the last 12 years and an air assault with "smart" bombs, designed to paralyze Iraqi forces with a punishing array of pinprick strikes. The campaign would include more, smaller bombs and possibly some novel "nonlethal" weapons.

The result, Pentagon officials said, would be a war that could prove less deadly to civilians than the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which an estimated 3,500 noncombatants died.

"Our precision capability allows us to keep ... civilian casualties to a lower number than we've ever seen in the past. But there will be some," said a senior U.S. military official who works under Franks at Central Command, which would direct a war in Iraq.

Bush administration officials stressed their efforts to keep down the number of civilian deaths because they are concerned that a large number would intensify opposition to U.S. policy around the world and undermine efforts to rebuild Iraq and foster democratic reforms in the Middle East. As a result, they have insisted that military planners devise rules that keep such casualties as low as possible, even as U.S. forces pursue a more ambitious mission than in 1991, when they drove the Iraqi military out of Kuwait.

Yet even if American and coalition troops avoid killing large numbers of noncombatants in the bombing campaign or in potentially messy urban warfare, intelligence reports suggest that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would mount an active campaign to convince world opinion otherwise.

In addition to the dangers of urban warfare, civilian casualties could result from Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and Hussein's strategy of placing military sites near schools, hospitals and mosques.

The effort to minimize civilian deaths is further complicated by antiwar protesters who have driven to Baghdad to volunteer as human shields and by the possibility that captured U.S. troops and others would be forced to protect sites with their lives, as happened in 1991.

Some Air Force officials have privately complained that vetting procedures to minimize civilian deaths in Afghanistan slowed the time it took to strike critical targets, by some reports causing U.S. forces to miss their chance to kill Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Nevertheless, analysts credit the approach with minimizing casualties in Afghanistan.

"Short of urban warfare, the casualties are likely to be surprisingly low," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst and former Pentagon official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "We've adopted new techniques to precisely choose the weapons. We've mapped out the cities far better to minimize the risk of civilian casualties."

Civilian combat casualties in Afghanistan have been unofficially estimated at 1,000 to 1,200, and the organization Human Rights Watch said the use of smart bombs had helped to minimize noncombatant deaths.

But the group has blamed the widespread use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan for the deaths and injuries of scores of civilians, and in a December report it urged that they not be used. Cluster bombs disperse in the air and are designed to kill people or destroy tanks over a several-hundred-yard area. Some turn out be duds that explode long afterward.

"As war looms in Iraq, the United States should learn from the lessons of its Afghanistan air war," said Bonnie Docherty, researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It should not use cluster bombs at all until the dud rate has been brought way down. At the very least, it should never use cluster bombs near inhabited towns and villages."

Using satellite and spy plane surveillance, American forces were able to use smaller bombs to destroy buildings in downtown Kabul where Al Qaeda operatives were believed to be meeting while leaving the surrounding buildings on all three sides standing, a senior Central Command official told reporters Wednesday.

In the case of chemical or biological weapons sites, targeters might simply deny the use of such a building by ringing it with temporary land mines dropped from planes, "so you could keep people from going in and taking something out of that facility," the senior Central Command official said.

Another likely tactic is the use of more, smaller bombs. At least some of the nation's 21 batwinged B-2 stealth bombers that can carry 16 2,000-pound smart bombs may already have been outfitted to carry up to 80 new 500-pound bombs. Lighter munitions also give Navy fighters, such as the F/A-18, greater range because they can carry more fuel.

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