With all U.S. hostages now out of Iraq and Kuwait, U.S. commanders are revising their lists of potential targets to include militarily significant sites that had been kept off earlier lists because of the presence of Americans held as “human shields.”
Despite repeated Bush Administration assertions to the contrary, the placing of American hostages at missile sites, ammunition plants, chemical complexes and oil refineries in Iraq and Kuwait had caused military planners to either remove those sites from target lists or alter planned attacks on them to minimize the possibility of killing the hostages.
President Bush signaled the change last weekend when he said, “When you don’t have Americans there, and if force is required, that’s just one less worry I’ve got.”
He added, “I think you can make the case that this facilitates the tough decisions that might lie ahead.”
Senior military officials said plans are being rewritten to include “secondary” or marginal targets that had been declared off-limits because of the presence of American hostages.
Also, plans for attacking critical military sites that previously were included despite the presence of human shields are being changed to make the raids less risky to American pilots, who had been under instructions to make visual identification of the targets to avoid inadvertently killing American hostages detained nearby.
“The point is that attack options are limited by having people there you don’t want to kill. Getting these people out gives you a freer hand,” one senior military officer said. “No American President or chief of staff wants to be in a position of ordering military action that takes the lives of 50 or 200 or 500 innocent American civilians. It’s just that simple.”
Although the hostages have been evacuated, the State Department says about 500 Americans are choosing to stay in Iraq and Kuwait.
Senior Pentagon officials emphasized that the removal of the hostages does not make a military strike against Iraqi targets more or less likely; they would be attacked only as part of full-scale war in any event. Secretary of State James A. Baker III has pledged publicly that the United States will not attack Iraq if President Saddam Hussein withdraws all his troops from Kuwait.
Government analysts are debriefing the returning hostages who were used as human shields to learn as much as they can about the sites where they were held, particularly the military capabilities and detailed layouts of the facilities. Some of this information already has been gleaned from non-American hostages held at the same facilities who were released earlier.
Since the beginning of the crisis in August, President Bush and other senior Administration officials have said consistently that the taking of hostages and their dispersal to strategic sites would have no impact on U.S. policy or military planning.
But, with the hostages now out of danger, military officials say those statements were partly a bluff and that in some cases potential targets were scrapped because of the presence of hostages.
Knowledgeable officials said potential military targets in Iraq fall into two categories: critical military installations that immediately threaten U.S. and allied forces, and secondary or marginal targets.
The officials said the first group--including missile launching sites, airfields, munitions depots and railroad marshaling yards--would be hit early in any conflict regardless of the presence of foreign hostages. However, these officials said, if it were known that Americans were held at a particular site, extraordinary measures would have been taken to try to avoid killing them.
“One would weigh in the balance the need to hit a target because of its impact on the troops. If taking out a target puts at risk five hostages versus 5,000 troops, what do you do?” asked a senior defense official, who clearly believed the answer was evident. “You might approach a target in a different way if someone were there, though.”
Such alternative approaches might include a daylight strike rather than nighttime raid, or the use of low-level aircraft and precision-guided bombs rather than high-altitude bombardment to try to assure that the weapons hit specific buildings or facilities. Such operations are far riskier for pilots and create the possibility of losing planes and having aviators taken captive.
With the hostages removed, targeters can now rewrite the “mission profiles” and fall back on the full range of U.S. weaponry--long-range “stand-off” missiles fired from aircraft or ships, naval bombardment and carpet bombing by heavy B-52s.
Returning hostages have said they were held at a number of sites that might fall into the category of “high-value” military targets: a munitions factory south of Baghdad, the chemical weapons plant at Al Qaim on the Syrian border, a military airfield near Basra in the south of Iraq and the missile assembly complex at Mosul, north of Baghdad.
Many sites from the second group of non-essential targets had been scratched from the planners’ target lists when it was learned that Americans had been sent there as shields, officials said.
Based on accounts from returned hostages, such potential targets may have included a dam and industrial complex on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, a steel plant north of Baghdad used to manufacture artillery, oil and natural gas refineries and the Tamuz nuclear reactor complex south of Baghdad.
Such sites would be desirable targets “for long-term reasons or their impact on Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi people” rather than because they are immediately threatening to U.S. forces, one defense official said.
With the removal of the hostages, he added, “They might be ones you could go ahead now and hit.”
HUMAN SHIELD SITES
Some of the strategic sites where returning hostages said they were held. Descriptions and locations are as precise as the hostages gave in interviews: * Alexandria 3 ammunition factory south of Baghdad.
* Chemical weapons plant at Al Qaim near Syrian border.
* Tamuz nuclear reactor complex south of Baghdad.
* Dam and industrial complex on Tigris River in far north.
* Missile assembly complex at Mosul.
* Chemical weapons plant 35 miles southwest of Baghdad.
* Oil refinery 25 miles from Baghdad.
* Plant north of Baghdad used to manufacture cannons.
* Munitions testing area one hour southwest of Baghdad.
* Natural gas plant near Kirkuk.
* Airport, military base, fertilizer factory near Basra.
* Kuwait University.
* Mina Achmedi oil refinery near Kuwait city.