U.S. Strikes Aimed at Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 1998 President Clinton ordered a "strong and sustained" air attack on Iraq Dec. 16 in response to continued Iraqi attempts to build weapons of mass destruction.
Tomahawk cruise missiles streaked toward Baghdad at 5 p.m. EST to start Operation Desert Fox. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said U.S. goals are to "degrade" Iraq's military capability, to stop Saddam Hussein from threatening his neighbors, to strike at facilities engaged in making weapons of mass destruction and to deprive Hussein of the means of delivering those weapons.
British airmen also joined in the strikes.
Cohen said he had ordered an air expeditionary wing and more ground troops to the Persian Gulf region as a precaution. Pentagon officials said the deployment order has been signed and about 90 Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft will soon be operating in the region. Deploying Army units include a brigade from Fort Stewart, Ga.; Army Patriot missile batteries from Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Bragg, N.C.; and a light infantry battalion from Fort Drum, N.Y.
The new U.S. forces will join 24,100 other service members already stationed in the region. There are 201 U.S. aircraft in the area, including 15 B-52H bombers based at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its battle group are scheduled to arrive in the Gulf Dec. 18.
Pentagon officials said eight Navy ships started the strikes by launching Tomahawk missiles. Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said strikes will be flown by the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force pilots flying from bases in the area and naval aviators from the USS Enterprise.
Cohen said the president agreed with advisers: "We wanted to strike quickly with no more warning, no more carrots for Saddam and no chance to prepare for the attacks."
The attacks followed a Dec. 15 report by chief U.N. arms inspector Richard Butler that said Iraq's compliance with U.N. resolutions had worsened since the U.N.-Iraqi confrontation in November. U.S. planes had been in the air to strike Iraq Nov. 14 when Saddam agreed to abide completely by U.N. resolutions.
Shelton said planning for another U.S. attack started Nov. 15. "We assumed a worst-case scenario [about compliance]," he said. He said the timing of the attack had to wait on Butler's report.
"Frankly, we thought the report would be mixed," Cohen said. "But in all five areas covered, Iraq had gotten worse."
Cohen and Shelton were not specific about the attack. Shelton said strikes generally would hit transport, air defense sites, and command and control facilities. "We're going after everything [involved with weapons of mass destruction] from transport to manufacturing to delivery," Shelton said.
He said U.S. forces will do all they can to avoid civilian casualties, but said there will be some.
Pentagon officials estimate the Iraqis have 430,000 active duty troops and 650,000 in reserve. About 17,000 Iraqi soldiers are involved with air defense and the Iraqi air force still has about 310 planes.