U.S. Attacks Iraq Nuclear Site : Ships Fire 40 Missiles at Plant Near Baghdad : Gulf: With impact of barrage unclear, White House signals more action if Hussein continues to defy U.N. Clinton backs raid, which follows downing of Iraqi jet.


U.S. warships, acting two years to the day after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, unleashed a barrage of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a nuclear fabricating plant on the outskirts of Baghdad on Sunday in a continuing effort to force Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. resolutions.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the attack on the Zaafarniyah plant, 13 miles outside the Iraqi capital, “makes the point to the people of the country, as well as to the government, that we are demanding compliance and that we are willing to enforce the resolutions” of the U.N. Security Council.

Specifically, the new attack--the second in four days--was triggered by Iraq’s continued refusal to let U.N. inspectors travel freely throughout the country to seek out facilities suspected of involvement in producing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.


Earlier Sunday, a U.S. F-16 Falcon fighter jet shot down an Iraqi warplane in its northern “no-fly zone.” Fitzwater announced that the American pilot “encountered a threatening” Iraqi warplane at 1:38 a.m. PST and shot it down. Officials later said that it had been downed with a U.S. Amraam missile, marking the second combat use of the high-tech dogfighting weapon.

U.S. and British warplanes flying in the northern no-fly zone also attacked an Iraqi air-defense battery that had fired at allied aircraft.

President-elect Bill Clinton, en route to inaugural festivities here, declared his full support for the strike, which was ordered by President Bush after consultation with U.N. officials and U.S. allies.

“Saddam Hussein should be very clear in understanding that the current and the next Administration are in complete agreement on the necessity of his fully complying with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Clinton said.

The impact of the missile strike was not immediately known, Pentagon officials said, because it was made under cover of darkness and allied forces will not be able to assess damage before daylight.

In other developments:

* The Bush White House signaled that more such attacks are likely if Baghdad continues to resist U.N. and allied efforts to enforce Security Council resolutions and if it continues to flout U.N. rules governing the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. Fitzwater described the situation with Iraq as “ongoing” and said that options are being “considered in the most urgent fashion” by the United States and its U.N. allies.

* The United Nations, hours after the attack, formally rejected Iraq’s latest response to the U.N. demand that weapons inspectors be guaranteed safe and unconditional freedom of travel inside that country. The inspections team “is still not in a position to fly its aircraft,” Tim Trevan, spokesman for the U.N. Special Commission that supervises the inspections, told reporters.

* In Iraq, Hussein’s palace on the banks of the River Tigris was sealed off, witnesses said, and he broadcast a speech urging his armed forces: “Attack them wherever you find them. God and his agents and believers will be satisfied with you.” Iraq’s Information Ministry denied that the Zaafarniyah complex is a nuclear-related site, claiming instead that it is a mechanical engineering facility.

* In Kuwait, an Iraqi soldier was killed and another captured during a firefight that Kuwaiti officials said began after three Iraqi military officers dressed in civilian clothes crossed the border into Kuwait. The three men are believed to have been intelligence officers seeking information on Kuwaiti defensive positions near the border, said Kuwaiti Information Minister Saud al Sabah. The Iraqis opened fire first, he said.

* Iraq has begun dismantling six disputed police posts in Kuwaiti territory on the Iraq-Kuwait border, Saud said. He said U.N. officials notified Kuwait that Iraq is closing down the posts, which had remained within the nine-mile-wide demilitarized zone along the border despite U.N. demands that they be removed by Jan. 15.

The missile attacks, which began just after 10 p.m. Baghdad time, involved Tomahawk cruise missiles--weapons that skim the ground and are guided to their targets by internal computer programs. They cost about $2 million apiece.

Air-defense fire responded to the attack, lighting up the sky over Baghdad in a scene eerily reminiscent of the night the six-week air war began in 1991.

A still-unidentified explosive charge slammed into the lobby of the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, which was housing a conference of international Islamic diplomats and is frequently used by foreign journalists, killing a hotel employee.

Pentagon officials suggested that the damage might have been done by Iraqi antiaircraft fire falling to the ground but would not rule out the possibility that a U.S. cruise missile had gone off course after being hit by antiaircraft fire. Iraq dismissed U.S. disclaimers as “preposterous” and insisted that a U.S. missile had hit the hotel.

The Zaafarniyah plant was not bombed during the six-week air war of 1991 and was one of the facilities that U.N. inspectors have visited several times in the last 21 months. David A. Kay, the official who led those inspections, called it “a very high-quality manufacturing facility that was very flexible in that it could produce a variety of things” related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons.

“I have no doubt it was involved in a part of their nuclear weapons production program, but in a part that was already past history before this strike.”

Kay, now secretary general of the London-based Uranium Institute, said that the complex was roughly about a mile long and nearly three-quarters of a mile wide at its widest point. The complex contained about 30 buildings, all in good condition before Sunday’s strike.

In Vienna, David Kyd, International Atomic Energy Agency spokesman, told reporters that the targeted nuclear weapons site at Zaafarniyah was a dormant plant that the United Nations did not plan to inspect again. Inspectors last visited the site in June, 1991, he said.

“It was out of action,” he said. “It was mothballed.”

Sunday’s strike, Kay acknowledged, “was probably more significant in symbolic terms simply because it was an undamaged facility and had been involved in the nuclear program.” But the plant’s broad capability and its flexibility “could have contributed to other (weapons) programs” in the future, he said.

The U.N. Special Commission’s Trevan said that the plant had been searched four times, twice by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency looking for nuclear weapons programs and twice by inspectors of the Special Commission looking for long-range ballistic missiles.

Trevan disagreed with Kyd about the value of the facility to Iraq, saying it had been “targeted for reinspection.” But he did not say when inspectors had planned to visit it again.

The attack came on the second anniversary of the Jan. 17, 1991, start of the Persian Gulf War. Before the attack, Hussein, in a speech before marking the anniversary of the war, declared that “the aggressors will fail in their evil purposes” and called the allied no-fly zones illegal.

For several days, Iraq and the coalition allies have maintained a tense standoff over Baghdad’s longstanding refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to make unrestricted flights into Iraq on U.N. planes.

On Saturday, Iraq had failed to satisfy the U.N. weapons inspectors with a conditional new offer. The Iraqi proposal would have permitted the weapons inspectors into Iraq and guaranteed their safety, but only if they skirted the no-fly zones and approached Iraqi airspace from Jordan.

Iraq softened its stand on inspection flights Sunday but not enough to satisfy the United Nations. Iraq said the flights would be allowed anywhere in Iraq, including the no-fly zone in the south, but only if the United Nations guaranteed that the United States and its coalition partners would stop all their operations over Iraq while the inspectors were in the air.

“This is a condition or a guarantee which the (U.N.) Special Commission simply is not in a condition to give,” Trevan said.

Sunday’s attack focused allied attention once more on enforcement of the Security Council resolutions requiring Iraq to give U.N. weapons inspectors unfettered access to possible weapons sites.

A limited air strike mounted last Wednesday by the allies had targeted Iraqi air-defense weapons, which allies said threatened their ability to enforce the air-exclusion zone. But allies such as Britain had balked at taking additional military steps that were not based firmly on existing Security Council resolutions.

Sunday’s strike culminated a festive day of parades, speeches and street demonstrations, as millions of Iraqis marked the day allied bombers and long-range missiles started ripping into strategic installations throughout the capital and other key Iraqi cities two years ago.

At the White House on Sunday, Fitzwater said that a limited cruise missile strike on the Zaafarniyah facility was chosen not only as a message to Iraqis and their leadership but because the option appeared to guarantee that it would not lead to the capture of downed airmen Hussein could use to taunt the outgoing Bush Administration.

“The main reason . . . we wanted to use the missiles (was) because it did not put U.S. personnel in jeopardy,” Fitzwater said. “We did not have to use aircraft. We did not have to suffer the risk of having personnel go down.” No allied military personnel were injured in the attack.

Fitzwater added that the strike “also helps in the process of eliminating nuclear weapons.”

Healy reported from Washington and Fineman from Baghdad. Staff writers Kim Murphy in Kuwait, John J. Goldman at the United Nations and Stanley Meisler in Washington also contributed to this report.


Tomahawk Attack

Sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles use computer and satellite data to zero in on their targets. They can take zig-zag routes to confuse ememy defenses.

Length: 21 ft.

Diameter: 20.9 inches

Wingspan: 8 ft. 6 inches

Cruise engine: 606 pounds thrust turbofan

Range: about 710 miles

Cruising speed: 550 m.p.h.


How cruise missiles work

1. Guidance system reads contours in the terrain to check that it is on target.

2. On nearing target, video camera is activated. (At night, a strobe illuminates the scene.)

3. Missile either plows straight into target or pops up at the last minute to strike from above.

Source: Jane’s Weapon Systems