Prague, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States struck heavily at targets in Iraq early today (Iraqi time) with the stated aim of crippling the military capabilities of President Saddam Hussein's regime.
The raids, by air-launched and sea-launched missiles, come after the United Nations' chief weapons inspector Richard Butler certified that Iraq was not fully cooperating with the UN to ensure the destruction of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. says the decision to act was not taken lightly, and that everything possible has been done to minimize casualties to the civilian population of Iraq.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went out of her way to stress the gravity with which Washington viewed the situation:
"As the U.S. chief diplomat I can tell you we exhausted every diplomatic opportunity and every possibility. Month after month we have given Iraq chance after chance to move from confrontation to cooperation and we have explored and exhausted every diplomatic option."
U.S. officials say Saddam's regime has long been playing brinkmanship by obstructing the work of UN arms inspectors, whose task is to ensure that Iraq has destroyed its capability to produce or deliver nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. U.S. forces were already in the air last month to strike Iraq, but were recalled when Saddam backed down at the last moment. This time there was no recall. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen:
"We have absolutely no doubt this is the right decision, this is the right time for us to move. Once Ambassador Butler made the determination that Saddam did not intend to comply, we felt this was the time to enforce what we said before".
Few details of the air raids on military targets have been released by U.S. defense officials. Correspondents in Baghdad report the city was last night lit by the occasional flash of incoming missile strikes, and by more frequent Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. Medical sources told journalists there had been several deaths, but there has been no official world on casualties or damage.
More strikes appear certain over the coming days as the U.S. and Britain pursue the intention to cripple as much as possible Iraq's ability to militarily threaten its neighbors.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described this as a sad day for the UN and the world. He said his thoughts are with the Iraqi people and all those whose lives are in danger. He spoke of his efforts to obtain Iraqi compliance and avoid violence:
"I have done everything in my power to ensure peaceful compliance with Security Council resolutions and to avert the use of force".
As expected, not all world leaders were in favour of the U.S. action. Security Council members Russia and China were among those condemning it. Russian President Boris Yeltsin said the action "crudely violated" the UN charter, and was "fraught" with dramatic consequences for the Gulf region. Yeltsin cancelled a visit today to NATO headquarters by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement expressed shock and called for an immediate halt to the action. In general, world reaction followed predictable lines, with allies lining up to support the U.S., while states not close to the U.S. condemned it. Some countries, like France, took a middle line, deploring the strikes while regretting the Iraqi lack of cooperation with UN inspectors.
Israel, which was the target of rocket strikes from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, was taking precautions today in case of any decision by Baghdad to make attacks with any residual missile forces this time. But that was not widely expected.
The financial markets of the world were also apparently calculating that nothing drastic was about to happen. Initial reaction to the raids on stock markets in Asia and Europe was muted, and oil prices fell again after a brief rise sparked by the expectation that Iraq might stop exporting oil as a result of raids. Oil prices are in any event around their lowest point in a decade, as the market shrinks amid international economic malaise.
The American action against Iraq comes at a particularly stressful time for U.S. President Bill Clinton. The U.S. House of Representatives had been scheduled today to begin debate on four articles of impeachment against Clinton stemming from the investigation of the Monica Lewinsky affair. The House has now put off its move in light of the Iraqi strikes.
Inevitably the suggestion has arisen that the timing of the raids was influenced by the House's impeachment intentions. Clinton confronted those suggestions by saying that Saddam may have believed that the serious debate in the House would distract Americans and weaken their resolve. But he said the raids show that the United States, however reluctant it is to use force, will do so when it must.