U.S. warships pounded an Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad with cruise missiles early today in retaliation for what President Clinton called a “particularly loathsome and cowardly” attempt to assassinate former President George Bush.
The attack, described by the Administration as a “measured and proportional” response, was ordered after FBI and CIA investigators determined that Iraq’s spy agency was behind a thwarted car bomb plot intended to kill Bush during a triumphal visit to Kuwait city April 14-16. Iraq has denied any connection with a plot to kill Bush.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin described the missile strike as a “wake-up call” to President Saddam Hussein. But he said no attempt was made to kill the Iraqi dictator.
A senior White House official said the attack was designed to demonstrate to Hussein that he must pay a high price for “state-sponsored terrorism.” But, he conceded, it is far from certain that Hussein got the message.
“It is a strong message. It is directed at the heart of his capability . . . but to try to figure out what is in Saddam Hussein’s mind is the path to madness,” he said.
Aspin and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon press conference that 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles, fired from a warship in the Red Sea and another in the Persian Gulf shortly after midnight Baghdad time, crashed into a large intelligence service complex in downtown Baghdad early today. Another missile misfired.
Powell said a detailed assessment of the damage was not immediately available but that an early assessment indicated that “all 23 performed as they were supposed to” and that they “landed in the target area where they are supposed to be.” The $1.25-million missiles each carry 1,000 pounds of high explosives.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government said today that missiles hit a residential area, killing several civilians and wounding many others, Reuters news agency reported from the Iraqi capital.
“The cowardly aggression martyred several civilian citizens in houses near the headquarters and wounded many others, including women and children,” said a statement from the ruling Revolution Command Council.
The target was selected because the Administration said Iraqi intelligence was behind the plot to kill Bush. Officials said the attack was planned for nighttime on a weekend to minimize both civilian and military deaths. But Aspin said the facility is manned around the clock, so some casualties were likely.
A senior Administration official said computer and communications facilities were damaged in the attack.
“None of the stuff is not reconstructable over some period of time, but this should be a blow to their intelligence operation for some time,” the official sad.
The Navy was ready to launch the attack Friday but the White House ordered a delay to avoid the Muslim Sabbath.
In an address to the nation from the White House, Clinton said that retaliation was inevitable once U.S. agencies became convinced that Iraq was responsible for the plot against Bush.
“From the first days of our revolution, American security has depended on the clarity of this message, ‘Don’t tread on us,’ ” Clinton said. “A firm and commensurate response was essential to protect our sovereignty, to send a message to those who engage in state-sponsored terrorism, to deter further violence against our people and to affirm the expectation of civilized behavior among nations.
“The Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans,” Clinton said. “We could not and have not let such action against our nation go unanswered.”
At the Pentagon, Aspin said Saudi Arabia and a number of other governments were informed of the attack but were not asked to take part.
The comments were an implicit response to critics of the Administration’s Bosnia policy who have complained that Clinton has adopted a policy of “multilateralism” that masks a U.S. retreat from world leadership. In Bosnia, Clinton determined that the United States would not act on its own.
“These actions were directed against the Iraqi government, which was responsible for the assassination plot,” Clinton said. “Saddam Hussein has demonstrated repeatedly that he will resort to terrorism or aggression if left unchecked. Our intent was to target Iraq’s capacity to support violence against the United States and other nations and to deter Saddam Hussein from supporting such outlaw behavior in the future.”
He said he found nothing about the plot surprising, considering Iraq’s record of aggression and terrorism. “But this attempt at revenge by a tyrant, against the leader of the world coalition that defeated him in war, is particularly loathsome and cowardly.”
Clinton called for the U.N. Security Council to consider the Iraqi plot against Bush. A meeting was scheduled for this afternoon.
Bush visited Kuwait in April as the focal point of a government celebration of its 1991 liberation from Iraqi occupation. The former President was greeted as a conquering hero.
Kuwaiti police discovered the assassination plot before the conspirators could get near enough to Bush to pose a threat. Many of the 16 suspects later confessed and pointed to the Iraqi intelligence service as the instigators of the plot. Fourteen of the suspects are on trial in Kuwait.
At first, the Administration was wary of the confessions, which officials said privately could have been obtained by torture. But officials said that an extensive American investigation independently established Iraqi responsibility.
Clinton was briefed on the evidence in meetings at the White House Wednesday and Thursday night, and options for retaliation were outlined.
The President concluded that retaliation was essential because if the plot went unpunished, “There was a real and present danger that Iraq might continue such acts,” a senior White House official said.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher was dispatched to Kennebunkport, Me., to brief Bush on the investigation’s findings and subsequent U.S. plan. The first missiles were launched from the two ships at 1:22 p.m. PDT Saturday, 12:22 a.m. today in Baghdad.
A White House official said Christopher reported that the former President was “supportive” of the raid and appreciated being kept informed.
Reached by the Associated Press, Bush declined to comment.
The U.S. response won immediate bipartisan approval on Capitol Hill.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Navy bomber pilot during the Vietnam War, said, “It was appropriate and I am pleased that the President responded to what was a direct attack on the United States.”
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) remarked, “That’s great! We can’t have any of our citizens, especially a former President, placed in jeopardy when they go overseas to a friendly country.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “It is the right response at the right time.”
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas was quoted as telling Clinton, “I support you and if there’s anything I can do, just let me know.”
Powell said U.S. forces in the area are sufficient to turn back any Iraqi retaliation. He indicated that the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which has been in the Adriatic Sea taking part in patrolling the “no-fly” zone over Bosnia, was being dispatched to the region.
Although the Administration linked the attack solely to the plot against Bush, officials have been chafing for weeks at Iraqi attempts to thwart the enforcement of the conditions Baghdad accepted as part of the cease-fire agreement that ended the Gulf War.
The U.N. Security Council has accused Iraq of breaking cease-fire agreements by preventing weapons inspectors from installing surveillance cameras at missile test sites.
Clinton said the attack was justified under the self-defense clause of the U.N. Charter, which gives all nations a right to use military measures in response to attacks on their territory or their citizens.
Former President Ronald Reagan invoked the same provision in 1986 when he ordered a bombing raid on Libya in retaliation for the terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque which killed an American serviceman.
The attack was the first unilateral military action ordered by Clinton since he took office. Earlier this month, he and allied leaders backed a U.N. punitive strike against warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in Somalia.
The last time U.S. forces struck Iraq was Jan. 17, three days before Clinton succeeded Bush in the White House. Allied warplanes hit an antiaircraft missile site south of Baghdad and U.S. warships fired 30 cruise missiles at an alleged nuclear facility. One missile missed its target and hit a Baghdad hotel, killing two people.
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U.S. cruise missiles targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service, a walled complex in the center of Baghdad that Pentagon officials said is the planning base for international terrorists attacks.
Attack on Baghdad
U.S. forces launched 23 Tomahawk missiles against what President Clinton described as “the Iraqi intelligence service’s principal command control facility in Baghdad” at 12:22 a.m. Sunday (1:22 p.m. Saturday PDT). The President said he ordered the attack based on “compelling evidence” of an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George Bush during his trip to Kuwait in April. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell said the cruise missiles were launched from two Navy vessels in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
A) USS Peterson, Red Sea (14 missiles fired)
B) USS Chancellorsville, Persian Gulf (9 missiles fired)