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The Little-Noticed War in Iraq

13 August, 1999 - Herald-Tribune

By Steven Lee Myers New York Times Service

WASHINGTON - It is the year's other war. While America's attention has focused on Kosovo, U.S. warplanes have methodically and with virtually no public discussion been attacking Iraq.

Over the past eight months, American and British pilots have fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 targets.

That is more than triple the targets attacked in four furious days of strikes in December that followed Iraq's expulsion of United Nations weapons inspectors, an assault that provoked an international outrage.

By another measure, the pilots have flown about two-thirds as many missions as NATO pilots flew over Yugoslavia in 78 days of around-the-clock war there.

The strikes have done nothing to deter Iraqi gunners from firing on American and British planes patrolling the ''no-flight'' zones over northern and southern Iraq. They, like officials in Baghdad, are acting as defiant as ever.

And there appears to be no end in sight to the war, to the surprise and chagrin of some officials of the Clinton administration and the Pentagon.

[Responding to Iraqi missiles and artillery fire, U.S. warplanes hit Iraqi defense sites Friday in the northern air-exclusion zone, The Associated Press reported from Ankara, based on a statement released by the U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany.

[The strike was triggered by Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fired at U.S. warplanes in the vicinity of the city of Mosul, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad, the command said.]

The cycle of tit-for-tat skirmishes has gone on so long that the Clinton administration is debating whether to intensify the attacks, expanding the list of targets to include more significant military targets, from air defenses to things like bases and headquarters, as long as Iraq fires at American and British jets, according to senior administration officials.

President Bill Clinton has not made a decision, but within the administration, some hawkish officials have contended that broader, more punishing strikes would deter the Iraqis and do more to weaken President Saddam Hussein's government, the officials said.

On the other hand, a tougher stand could also draw attention to strikes that have generated little opposition at home and abroad, in part because no American pilots have died or been injured.

''Our use of force so far has not risen to a threshold to cause international concern,'' especially among Arab allies in the Gulf, a senior official said. ''Disproportionate responses might.''

Overshadowed for much of the year by the war in the Balkans, the Clinton administration's policy toward Iraq is increasingly facing criticism.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of prominent members of the Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter to Mr. Clinton scolding him for what they called ''the continued drift'' in policy.

While they expressed support for the strikes, they called on Mr. Clinton to give Iraq a new deadline to comply with UN inspections and to threaten ''serious consequences'' if Mr. Saddam refused, including more potent air strikes throughout Iraq and an expansion of the ''no-flight'' zones. They also called for increased support, including military aid, to Iraqi opposition groups.

Administration and Pentagon officials defend their policy - including the air strikes - as a firm, but measured, effort to isolate Mr. Saddam and weaken his armed forces. They concede, however, that the Iraqis have proved more resilient than expected. They have quickly repaired damage done to air-defense weapons, forcing the Americans to bomb some targets over and over.

The Iraqis also have rebuilt some of the factories, barracks and other sites destroyed in the raids in December, including buildings at the Al Taji missile complex, one of the critical targets, according to Defense Department officials.

Of greater concern is Iraq's ability to rebuild its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, which Mr. Saddam pledged to halt as part of the cease-fire that ended the Gulf War in 1991. In their letter, the lawmakers said there was ''considerable evidence'' that Iraq continued to pursue those weapons, though neither the lawmakers nor their aides elaborated.

The administration and Pentagon officials maintain there is no evidence of that, but without international inspections, some acknowledged, there is little to stop Iraq from doing so. That is why the administration is quietly supporting a draft UN Security Council resolution by Britain and the Netherlands to renew the international weapons inspections. That resolution, which would create a new inspection agency to replace the United Nations Special Commission, is expected to go before the council in September, but it still lacks support from France, Russia and China, which have veto power.

Without some inspections, the patrols of the ''no-flight'' zones remain the core of the administration's effort to contain Mr. Saddam. The United States and its allies created the zones - north of the 36th parallel and south of the 33rd - in the years after the Gulf War to protect ethnic populations long repressed by Mr. Saddam's government. Iraq did not recognize the zones, but it had rarely challenged allied patrols of them.

After the raids in December, however, Mr. Saddam declared the zones a violation of Iraq's sovereignty, and his forces have made good on threats to challenge them.

Iraqi MiG jets dart in and out of the zones. Missile radars have tracked allied patrols, and gunners have fired anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles at them.

American and British warplanes respond when challenged, though not every time. Every few days they have struck missile sites, radar stations and radio towers across both the northern and southern zones. Since late July, there has been a new flurry of strikes in response to newly vigorous Iraqi challenges.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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