Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Harsh Aspects of War Felt in Gulf

Graphic sights of civilian casualties in Baghdad revulse watching world; US defends tactics

ONE month after Operation Desert Shield turned into the Desert Storm war, anti-Saddam coalition forces are intensifying military attacks even as charges of Iraqi civilian casualties put them increasingly on the political defensive. Meanwhile, the first true glimmer of Gulf war diplomacy has appeared, with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz scheduled to meet Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow on Monday.

The USSR has been attempting to position itself as a possible mediator in the Gulf crisis, but as of this writing it is not clear whether Saddam Hussein is prepared to deal or is simply playing for time.

About these ads

``The deciding factor for us is, what does he say about getting out of Kuwait?'' said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.

Ground war delayed

The past week opened amid expectations that an allied ground offensive might begin any day.

In a surprise move, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a flying visit to Saudi Arabia to see for themselves whether the time for a ground war was ripe - and apparently decided it wasn't.

Coalition officials now emphasize that they won't be hurried into a ground offensive, no matter how much Saddam Hussein goads them.

The reason: air attacks have yet to reach a point of diminishing returns, according to United States military officials.

Heavy weapons destroyed

About these ads

Some 20 percent of Iraq's heavy weapons in the Kuwait theater of operations have been destroyed, and Iraqi resupply ability has been reduced by 90 percent, but large numbers of tanks and artillery pieces remain.

While relatively easy to find, these targets are hard to destroy. Many tanks, for instance, are dug in below the tops of their treads, leaving only the turrets exposed.

``It's one bomb per armored vehicle,'' said Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly, Joint Chiefs director of operations.

``They're in revetments, so you can't put a bomb outside it and expect the shrapnel to knock the vehicle out.''

And just because allied columns of tanks aren't on the move doesn't mean ground fighting hasn't started.

On Tuesday, in the largest such operation to date, Saudi artillery, plus Marine Corps aircraft and artillery and the 16-inch guns of the battleship Missouri, opened fire on Iraqi forces.

Coalition spokesmen declined to specify exactly what was hit, characterizing it only as ``a lucrative target.''

But the bombardment lasted three to four hours and involved hundreds of guns and shells.

``This was a test of the ground fire-support system,'' noted a Pentagon weapons consultant.

Throughout the rest of the week Iraqi and coalition forces continued to exchange sporadic gun fire, and US troops engaged in aggressive patrolling and reconnaissance activities on the ground.

But even as the anti-Iraq coalition appeared to increasingly dominate the Gulf crisis militarily, it faced political setbacks.

A string of charges about unnecessary civilian casualties kept Bush administration officials on the defensive all week.

Even before the bombing of a Baghdad air raid shelter on Wednesday, which Iraqi officials charged caused hundreds of civilian casualties, White House spokesman Fitzwater was admitting that Saddam Hussein was making some propaganda gains.

As evidence, he pointed to Soviet President Gorbachev's statement that perhaps US bombing of Iraq had gone beyond the UN mandate for the use of force.

President Bush said Saddam was spreading ``myths and falsehoods'' about massive Iraqi civilian casualties.

The shelter incident, with its gripping images of burned and crying civilians, is sure to only intensify this propaganda blitz. As of this writing it was not clear if it would have any effect on coalition solidarity.

The UN Security Council met Thursday in closed session to discuss the war, weigh the charges of civilian casualties, and hear a plea from Iraqi ally Yemen for a pause in the bombing.

US officials adamantly insisted that the shelter was a military target, complete with command-and-control electronic emissions and a fresh coat of camouflage paint.

Though not denying Iraq's assertion that civilians died in the attack, they did hint that perhaps the civilians had been placed in the shelter on purpose.

Since the beginning of the war the US military has been saying it does not target civilians; but it hasn't hidden the fact that collateral damage does occur in battle, and civilians are killed.

Standard military practice

The practice of striking targets deep behind enemy front lines to interdict supplies and government support is as old as warfare, says Alan Sabrosky, former chairman of research at the Army War College and now an international studies professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. ``When you're fighting an enemy up front, the best thing to do is burn the granaries behind him,'' says Dr. Sabrosky.

Such interdiction on the part of the US has been far more savage in past wars, Sabrosky notes. If Cable Network News (CNN) had been in Dresden or Tokyo during World War II, he asks, when firestorms set by US bombs killed thousands of civilians, what would have been the reaction of the US population?

Iraqi civilian casualties of US bombing were surely inadvertent, Sabrosky says, but pictures of them brings to US living rooms a certain truth about the risks and horror of armed action.

``We never knew,'' he says. ``Now we know.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.