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Iraq: Weapons Capabilities Suffer 'Substantial Damage'

London/Baghdad, 19 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - British defense secretary George Robertson says it's clear British and U.S. cruise missile attacks have inflicted "substantial damage" on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons capabilities. Speaking to reporters today, Robertson said the missiles struck 100 targets in three days of raids. These include the Republican Guard headquarters and offices of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Baath party. He said about 400 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles have been used.

Robertson gave no date for ending the military operation but repeated previous statements that the attacks will end when military objectives have been achieved. The operation came just ahead of the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which begins today.

An Iraqi official, meanwhile, said today that 68 civilians have died in the attacks. It isn't clear if that count includes last night's raid on Baghdad, the heaviest bombardment yet on the capital. The official Iraqi news agency INA also said five civilians were killed overnight in the northern province of Tamin. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

U.S. and British officials say they are targeting only military sites and are trying to minimize civilian casualties.

U.S. president Bill Clinton has reportedly scheduled a meeting with top advisers later today to discuss the Iraqi situation. In a Ramadan-season message to the Arab world today, Clinton said the air strikes are in the interests of the entire Middle East.

The attacks began early Thursday morning (local time), following a report by U.N. weapons inspection chief Richard Butler that Iraq had not fully cooperated with inspection teams. The teams are charged with verifying destruction of Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Syrian security forces say thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the capital Damascus today to protest U.S. and British military strikes against Iraq.

Some of the demonstrators surged around the American embassy, breaking windows and entering the ambassador's residence, creating major damage. Damascus security forces had to be called in to restore order.

Marchers also tried to enter the British embassy but were stopped by Syrian police.

In the street demonstrations, the protesters shouted anti-U.S. slogans and demanded a prompt halt of the bombardment and a lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq.

Syria's official news agency SANA said Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa discussed by phone the military strikes against Iraq with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi.