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Airstrikes Against Iraq

February 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For additional insight into today’s action we turn to Mark Thompson, National Security Correspondent for Time Magazine; and Geoffrey Kemp – he was senior director for Near East affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. He’s now at the Nixon Center. Welcome to you both.

Mark Thompson, beginning with you, tell us a little bit more about the military rationale for this strike. How much danger did the Pentagon feel the pilots were in, the allied pilots were in? When did this stepped up risk begin?

MARK THOMPSON: Margaret, U.S. and British pilots have been under constant bombardment in the northern and southern no-fly zones since December of ’98. When I was over there a year ago they would talk about seeing puffs of anti-aircraft fire and missile plumes. So they have been seeing this stuff for a long time.

What’s happening now and what has changed roughly in the last month is there are a lot more weapons being fired at them even if the missiles are unguided and the flack is merely golden BBs hoping to down one. And the long-range radars are better able to let the Iraqis sort of line up their weapons and coordinate these attacks on the American and British planes and there’s a sense that time might be running out unless they went up there today and took some of these targets out.

MARGARET WARNER: So when the briefer today talked about the increasing sophistication, was he talking about the command and control center and how it is able to what, anticipate the way the planes are going to go? What is he really talking about?

MARK THOMPSON: As you come into the no-fly zone, if you’ve got long-reaching radars, you can alert people down the road that hey, planes are coming. And if you’ve got sophisticated enough radars coming from enough directions, you can get a good bead on where the plane is going to be in 20 minutes and you can cue up your radars and your missiles to try to take them out.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the allied forces only struck at the radars. They didn’t strike at the surface-to-air missiles that have been going after U.S. planes. Why?

MARK THOMPSON: Basically because if the missiles turn on their own onboard radars, the pilots in the cockpits know that and can knock that out really quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, what, because they have heat sensing…

MARK THOMPSON: The American pilots have radar warning receivers on board so the Iraqis haven’t been turning on those radars, and so they fire the missile basically hoping it will hit. It’s basically an unguided missile. So that’s sort of a crapshoot. The coordination by these bigger radars is really the thing that’s troubling the Pentagon.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the Pentagon briefer today and also Condoleeza Rice just spoke to reporters — called this routine, essentially saying this isn’t a change in tactics. But this is different, isn’t it, from the retaliatory strikes that the military has been taking the last couple of years.

MARK THOMPSON: They’ve been flying about four days a week in the no-fly zones and dropping bombs on half of those days. So this does go on a lot. But generally it happens within the northern and the southern no-fly zones. This is the first time they’ve dropped bombs out of the no-fly zones in basically a year and a half. And so that was definitely new and it is the dawn of a new administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Geoffrey Kemp, turning to you, how do you see today’s action in terms of whether it represents a change in the policy or tactics?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, it is too early to tell. Certainly, I think a lot of the explanations that came out of the Pentagon are very reasonable. I think there was perhaps an additional fear that as the Iraqis’ air defenses were strengthening, there would be the possibility that an allied plane could be shot down by Saddam Hussein while Secretary Powell is visiting the region. That would have been extremely embarrassing.

The other thing, Margaret, is that there have been noises coming out of London in the last few months very concerned about the state of play of the flights because they don’t really seem to be achieving very much, and I think this was an indication that you had to either do more or get out and stop doing anything.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, this may be the time for you to remind us about why the allied planes are still over there and what these no-fly zones are about.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, the northern no-fly zone is primarily to protect the Kurdish enclave, which is relatively autonomous and has been quite successful in keeping its distance from Saddam. The southern no-fly zone is designed in theory to keep Iraqi aircraft out of the south and thereby protect the Shi’ite population. But frankly it has not done that. There is a lot of erosion going on in the overall sanctions regime. There are civilian aircraft flying through these zones into Baghdad regularly now. So the question of their utility is being asked by a lot of people. And I think this is one of the issues the new administration has to address very carefully.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think Saddam Hussein has been able to build this increasingly sophisticated air defense system — in terms of where he’s gotten the money and where he has gotten the expertise.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Are you asking me?


GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I think there are two things here, Margaret. One, Saddam has a lot more money now because prices of oil have gone up. He’s very successful at smuggling oil. He has a lot of cash. And with that cash he can go to the black markets in Eastern Europe and elsewhere and buy the sorts of spare parts he needs to upgrade his air defense system. This is a very dangerous development, and there’s very little we can do about it unless we have cooperation at the U.N. and from other allies to make sure that he cannot engage in these activities.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, did anyone at the Pentagon say to you today or anyone in the administration, that they hoped or thought this would be taken as some kind of signal by Baghdad about this new administration and its intentions?

MARK THOMPSON: I think basically they knew their description of it as routine would be viewed with skepticism both in and outside of Baghdad. And indeed witness the reaction it has ginned up today; that is the case. I mean it is a new administration. It is the administration of the former president, you know, his son is now the president. And so regardless of what they say, they knew how it was going to sound even if they would insist that it wasn’t trying to send a message.

MARGARET WARNER: Geoffrey Kemp, what kind of signal do you think it sends about the intentions of this new administration?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, suddenly before the election the Bush advisors were talking about a more robust policy towards Iraq that could lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This has become more muted since they’ve actually come into office. But I think it’s true that when Secretary Powell gets to the region next week, he will be queried on U.S.-Iraq policy because there’s enormous criticism out there in the Arab world of what we are doing, both the air strikes and the sanctions taking place at the very same time that the Arab-Israeli peace process has collapsed and the United States is seen as supporting Israel as it suppresses the Palestinians. So Powell is going to have to deal with a lot of questions and a lot of anger from the countries he visits — even those that are friendly to us. And what he says, of course, remains to be seen.

MARGARET WARNER: And Iraq this afternoon, late this afternoon our time, issued a statement condemning the attack but calling it an attack of aggression by, I’m talking to you, Geoffrey Kemp, both the U.S. And Israel — not the U.S. And Britain; the U.S. And Israel. Now how do you read that?

GEOFFREY KEMP: That’s typical Iraqi propaganda. They are trying of course to link the United States to Israel because this is one of the ways Saddam Hussein is trying to redeem himself, rehabilitate himself in the Arab world. And one of the things the Bush administration has to decide is whether a more robust policy including more air strikes will actually weaken Saddam or strengthen him as long as the peace process remains in chaos.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, Iraq also said today there had been one death and at least nine people injured. Is the Pentagon confirming any of that?

MARK THOMPSON: No, not yet Margaret. There have been allegedly over 300 people killed since Desert Storm – since Desert Fox as a result of this stepped up bombing. The United States has really never been able to confirm any of those figures.

MARGARET WARNER: The briefer also said today that the Pentagon regards this as a completed job — that is that it did the job. There is not going to be a need for another similar strike any time soon. Can they really know that at this stage?

MARK THOMPSON: No, they won’t know that until they see how many SA-6s are fired at them.

MARGARET WARNER: Surface-to-air missiles.

MARK THOMPSON: Right. If they continue at the same rate as in the past, they’ll have to go back.

MARGARET WARNER: Geoff Kemp, back to you. Do you think today’s action – and this is kind of a long shot here, but do you think today’s action will have an impact on the Powell trip and on the U.S. concerns, this new administration’s concerns that one: This coalition against the sanctions is crumbling, and two: Their fear, which they’ve said publicly that Saddam Hussein has used the last couple of years to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I think it will reinforce the administration’s quite correct posture that Saddam Hussein is rearming and that ultimately this poses a major threat to Arab friends in the region as well as to Israel. What Powell I think has to do is to convince the Saudis and others that, you know, we are going to stay tough and that — if necessary — we will use force, but that we will try to create a new sanctions regime that hurts the people of Iraq much less and targets specifically Saddam’s efforts to rebuild his military infrastructure.

MARGARET WARNER: But of course there’s deep skepticism among the Arab governments and many European governments on both those fronts. How do you think today’s action will be read in that regard?

GEOFFREY KEMP: I think it will be initially there will be great skepticism. They will think that this is the beginning of a new more robust policy that is going to create more anti-Americanism in the region and make it more difficult to sustain pressure on Saddam Hussein. So it is going to be up to Secretary Powell to convince our allies that the Bush administration has a clear policy with end goals that can be fulfilled, and that this is not going to be done at the expense of the Iraqi people.

MARGARET WARNER: So just one final clarification on that. In other words, how do you think Powell will present their policy as different from the Clinton administration’s policy?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I think first there will be discussion about what — so-called smart sanctions; that is to say, removing a lot of the obstacles that prevent ordinary Iraqis from traveling, ordinary Iraqis from getting hold of goods and services, which they’re entitled to, and a more specific on the weapons proliferation issue. And this will involve not just weapons of mass destruction but the sorts of conventional weaponry that Saddam is now able to buy on the black market around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Geoffrey Kemp and Mark Thompson thank you very much.