With 'Wake-Up' Air Raid, Iraqi's Nightmare Began

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1:50 a.m. in Baghdad's Harthiya district, a modest, palm-lined neighborhood that is home to shopkeepers, civil servants and private traders. Zahraa Yhaya and her husband, Maan Qaisy, were sound asleep in their second-floor bedroom, their 18-month-old baby, Mohammed, curled up in his nearby crib.

The sirens only sounded for a few seconds. Then the first U.S. Tomahawk missile fired from a warship several hundred miles to the south slammed its 1,000-pound warhead into a target just half a mile away--the headquarters of Iraq's mukhabarat , the foreign-intelligence service that the Clinton Administration would assert had plotted to kill former President George Bush in Kuwait two months before.

Yhaya leaped up in bed. She shook her husband. "Maan, it's an explosion!" she screamed, recalling the nightmare that erased her future. Her husband dashed to the window and watched as a second missile slammed into the mukhabarat. "He said, 'Zahraa, carry the baby from his bed, because the bed is near the window.' I lift my baby and put him near me in our bed.

"The third one, it was my home. The wood of my bed was on top of me, the ceiling was on top of me, and I don't believe it. I think it's a nightmare. I still think it's a nightmare. And then I lost consciousness."

Two days later, as she lay in her hospital bed with a fractured shoulder, four shattered pelvic bones and stitches in her face, relatives gently broke the news to Yhaya: Her husband and baby were dead.

It has been a month since President Clinton ordered the June 27 air strike on Baghdad, later expressing deep regret for the handful of civilians killed by three missiles that the Pentagon confirmed went astray.

But Yhaya, 29, still shook violently, chain-smoking and pouring tears behind a black lace veil, as she answered Defense Secretary Les Aspin's "wake-up call" for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with a message of her own:

"Please tell the people of America, the mothers of America, that when a missile makes mistakes, it kills people. It kills babies. It kills families sleeping at night, with no war and no warning. . . . To say, 'Sorry for a missing missile,' it's not enough. You must think once, twice, a third time. Because when a human life is gone, nothing can bring it back."

But the enduring grief of Zahraa Yhaya and the families of the other civilians killed in the U.S. attack is but one of many dimensions in a damage assessment of the missile assault on Baghdad.

Diplomats and independent analysts, most of whom now challenge Washington's assertion that the air strike was an unqualified success, said that the military action's lasting effect must be assessed.

The attack was the third time this year--it has happened once before in Iraq and also in Somalia--that the U.S. military has used air strikes to influence political matters. Pentagon planners have stressed the tactical advantages of using a weapon such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, a $1.25-million computer-driven piece of hardware that the Pentagon says strikes with precision yet endangers no American lives.

"The question is twofold," one Western military analyst said. "One, are these missiles really all that precise? And two, has this strike on the Iraqi mukhabarat had the desired effect on the Iraqi regime, not to mention the other still-hostile governments sponsoring terrorism in the region, which the American Administration hoped to put on notice? Many would argue that the answer to both questions is a fairly decisive 'No.' "

The Pentagon said it programmed and launched 24 missiles at the mukhabarat compound from two ships, one in the Red Sea and one in the Persian Gulf; 16 missiles hit the target; one misfired; four were shot down by Iraqi antiaircraft; three missiles veered off course, each hitting a different home in Baghdad.

All three of the stray missiles struck houses outside the targeted compound. One hit the home occupied by Yhaya and her family, the second caused no casualties, and the third killed Leila Attar, Iraq's best-known female artist, her husband and their maid.

In all, one-third of the missiles failed to reach their target--a percentage similar to that in U.S. Tomahawk missile attacks on a Baghdad components factory in the final days of the Bush Administration. Then, eight of 40 missiles were shot down and one exploded in the Rashid Hotel, killing two women and terrifying hundreds of delegates to an international Islamic convention.

"Whether it's eight dead or five dead hardly matters," one senior diplomat in Baghdad said, commenting on both the accuracy of last month's strike and the disputed numbers of civilians killed. "All it takes is one Leila Attar and you've given the Iraqis enormous propaganda value."

An Iraqi intellectual who conceded that he dislikes his regime, observed: "You'd think an ordinary Iraqi would say (the intelligence compound was) a good target, but it doesn't work that way. Leila Attar was known and respected by every writer, journalist, artist and professor in this country--the intellectual class who normally are against the government. But now everyone is starting to wonder. . . . How can the Americans bombard the intelligence headquarters and they can't bombard his (Hussein's) palace?"

Most veteran diplomats and analysts in Baghdad agreed that, despite the extensive damage to three buildings, sophisticated communications gear and a wealth of computer files in the mukhabarat compound, Iraq's intelligence operation is so massive that the strike hardly had the "crippling" effect that Washington claimed.

Diplomats confirmed that much of the compound's communications capability was destroyed in the strike; most agreed that the Iraqis had not expected any military retaliation until after the trial of Bush's alleged assailants in Kuwait ends in late August.

But they speculated that an intelligence network as vast as mukhabarat --a highly secretive agency created nearly two decades ago, modeled loosely after the Soviet KGB and firmly entrenched around the world--would have kept backup files and spare equipment.

On the question of whether the strike sent "a wake-up call" to Hussein, one diplomat in Baghdad said it did remind the regime of America's massive firepower, adding that it appears to have strengthened softer-line factions of his ruling clan.

On Sunday, Baghdad tried to downplay an incident in which U.S. jets reportedly traded fire with Iraqi forces over southern Iraq by denying the incident ever occurred. And last week, it offered significant concessions to U.N. weapons inspectors.

"The strike and its aftermath again showed the Iraqi side they cannot get away with everything they want to," one envoy said.

But, he added, "if the purpose was to hit the headquarters and cripple or cow the regime, I would hesitate to say it served the purpose."

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