Allied forces have achieved air superiority after a massive one-week bombardment in the Persian Gulf War, the nation’s top general said today, and now intend to focus on the Iraqi ground forces in and around Kuwait.
The Iraqi army is “sitting there dug in, waiting to be attacked, and attacked it will be,” said Gen. Colin L. Powell. He added: “Our strategy for dealing with this army is very simple: First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”
Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered an optimistic assessment of the war effort but described Iraq as a resourceful, ingenious enemy. He said Iraq’s military is “hunkering down” and probably trying to assess whether the allied effort can be sustained.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney preceded Powell to the lectern and told reporters “there may well be surprises ahead for us,” including possible Iraqi air strikes, terrorist attacks and more missile attacks.
“If we do have to go with our ground forces to push him out of Kuwait it will be after we have done enormous damage to his ground forces” by air attacks, Cheney said of the ground war yet to begin. He said: “I think time is clearly on our side.”
Cheney and Powell both conceded that knocking out Iraq’s mobile Scud missile launchers was proving more difficult than allied war planners anticipated. Cheney said that the Patriot missile that failed to knock out Tuesday’s attack on Tel Aviv was fired by Israeli crews, not U.S. crews.
Powell said more than 10,000 allied sorties had destroyed 41 Iraqi aircraft, either in air-to-air combat or on the ground.
He said the United States has lost at most one plane in air-to-air combat.
While vexed by the missile attacks, Powell said Iraq’s air force was totally ineffective in the first week of action but may yet “choose to come out and challenge us.”
Powell said the bombardment had knocked out two Iraqi nuclear reactors at Tuwaitha near Baghdad. They are “gone, they’re down, they’re finished,” he said.
Asked what he thought Iraq’s military strategy was, Powell said, “I would suspect that right now they’re hunkering down and they’re questioning whether or not we can keep this up for an extended period of time” and whether the American public has the will to persist.
Cheney cautioned against expectations of a quick end to the war, saying, “A military operation of this intensity and complexity cannot be scored every evening like a college track meet or basketball game.”
Powell and Cheney both urged the public, and the media, to understand that it was not possible to know quite how badly the furious air campaign had damaged Iraq’s military capability.
Powell said the one-week mark was time to “take stock and dampen the oscillations between euphoria and distress.” He was referring to the mood around Washington, and perhaps around the country, when the early air successes did not lead to a one-week victory.
Powell stressed that the allied war effort is an air, ground and sea campaign, even if the opening days were concentrated on air power.
He said allied forces were “assembling a fairly sizable ground force that can finish the job if necessary.”