Prague, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- This week's intense attacks by U.S. warplanes on Iraq's military infrastructure -- the heaviest since four days of bombing in December -- may signal an expanding effort by Washington to keep Baghdad's forces weak in the absence of U.N. arms monitoring.
On Monday, U.S. jets dropped more than 30 laser-guided bombs on communications sites, radio relay sites and anti-aircraft guns. At the same time, war planes hit a communications center controlling the flow of oil through a key pipeline. The pipeline -- which transports oil from northern Iraqi oil fields to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan -- was itself hit a day earlier, forcing it to shut down for repairs.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen has said that the targets in the raids were largely command-and-control centers which give Baghdad the ability to coordinate the actions of its forces. He also acknowledged that the raids could have caused Iraq to have to halt the use of its pipeline, which enables Baghdad to export oil under the U.N.-approved oil-for-food program.
The raids continue a pattern of almost daily strikes by U.S. and British planes since mid-December, when the allies punished Baghdad for four days for refusing to cooperate with the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on disarming Iraq. Since then, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has refused to let the arms inspectors return.
Baghdad also has refused to continue recognizing allied patrols of no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq. As Iraqi air defenses have repeatedly challenged the patrols, the allies have gradually broadened their response from striking anti-aircraft guns and missile sites to destroying key elements in Iraq's military infrastructure.
Nigel Vinson -- a defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London -- says that the widening scope of U.S. strikes represents a strategy of deliberately weakening Iraq's military capabilities as Washington seeks to ensure Baghdad poses no threat to its neighbors.
That goal is the same one the United States had previously counted on U.N. arms inspections and economic sanctions to achieve. But Vinson says Washington has seen those efforts stymied by the Iraqi regime's refusal to readmit arms monitors and by the uncertain effects of economic sanctions on the Iraqi military. He says that leaves Washington with few options other than air strikes.
Nigel Vinson says: "Before, the military strategy which [was] deployed on a number of occasions since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 was part of a wider [range] of anti-Iraqi measures, not least of course the UNSCOM team. ... That capability was effectively removed last year and is now dead ... therefore the Americans have no other means ... apart from sanctions, which is a very clumsy tool for affecting the military forces in Iraq."
Analysts say the United States also may be hoping that its repeated strikes against Iraq's military infrastructure could help to convince some Iraqi military leaders that Saddam is powerless to protect the armed forces and that it may be time to remove him.
Washington's desire to see an Iraqi military coup replace Saddam is no secret. The U.S.'s top diplomat working with Iraqi opposition groups, Frank Ricciardone, said two days ago that most probably Saddam will lose power through a military coup. He did not predict when that might happen.
But Vinson and other analysts say that, for now, any hope of a coup by Iraq's military may be premature. They say Saddam remains in solid control of his army and security apparatus and so far has shown an unfailing ability to spot and execute rivals before they gain sufficient power to challenge him. Nigel Vinson says:
"Undoubtedly [the Americans] feel there is a chance -- albeit a small one -- that a coup could originate within Iraq itself and overthrow the regime ... The bombing campaign does have a direct effect [on the Iraqi military] and that is why the Americans have continued to emphasize it, [although] it is very difficult to see precisely at any moment what the desired end ... would be."
The heavy U.S. air strikes two days ago alarmed France and Russia, which have called for negotiations with Iraq to develop a new way for the United Nations to control Baghdad's weapons program. The two states have also called for easing or lifting economic sanctions on Iraq, which they say punish ordinary Iraqis while the regime maintains its position through lucrative oil smuggling.
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret said yesterday that the military operations are, in her words, not going in the direction that Paris would like.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said the air strikes must be stopped immediately and that they complicate efforts to resolve the Iraqi problem in the U.N. Security Council.
Meanwhile, the director of the U.N. oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, has said that the interruption of Iraqi oil flows due to the damage to its northern pipeline could complicate international efforts to supply humanitarian aid to Iraqis.
Iraq uses the northern pipeline to export about half of the oil it is permitted to sell abroad under the U.N. program. The oil-for-food program -- in effect since 1996 -- currently permits Baghdad to sell $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months to buy food, medicine and other necessities.
Iraq has not yet resumed pumping through the pipeline, though oil industry experts say any disruption of the oil flow will be temporary. Correspondents say Iraqi crude is still being loaded onto tankers at Ceyhan from storage tanks, but the oil is expected to run out by the end of this week unless pumping resumes before then.
Iraq has been under U.N. sanctions since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Lifting of the sanctions is tied to arms inspectors confirming that Baghdad's forces have no weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles, but those inspections are now in suspension.