In December 1998, the United States and England launched the largest attack upon Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. Dubbed Operation Desert Fox, the campaign turned out to be a short one of just four days of bombing and missile strikes. The cause was Saddam Hussein’s continued refusal to cooperate with the United Nations’ weapons inspectors, who withdrew from the country shortly before the operation started, and would not return again until the end of 2002. At the time, Desert Fox was highly controversial within the United States, because it came on the heels of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Many politicians and analysts derided the attack as being a diversion from American domestic politics, and ineffective due to its short duration, and because Iraq was left to operate with no inspectors in the country. Supporters said it almost caused a coup. After the fall of the regime, investigators found that the program ended Iraq’s hopes of rebuilding its chemical and biological weapons operations. In the end, Operation Desert Fox proved to have far more effects upon Iraq than initially thought.
In December 1998, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair announced an air campaign against Iraq called Operation Desert Fox. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said that the two countries would focus upon degrading Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, and its ability to project military power. Cohen went on to say that the strikes were meant to make Saddam Hussein comply with United Nations’ resolutions and weapons inspections. President Clinton went on television saying that Saddam had lost his last chance to cooperate with the U.N., and that he should be removed. Thus started the largest military operation against Iraq since the Gulf War.
|Some of the government targets struck in Baghdad during Desert Fox|
The operation lasted just four days, starting on December 16. That night 250 Tomahawk missiles and 40 sorties by planes from the U.S.S. Enterprise struck Iraq. A total of 415 cruise missiles and 600 bombs were used against 100 targets, 97 of which were hit. 49 of the strikes were against elements of the government. That included three palaces in Baghdad, the offices of Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam’s chief of staff, the Baath Party headquarters in the capital, the Mukhabarat intelligence agency offices, along with the Defense and Industry Ministries. Several military and domestic security agencies were hit as well including two corps and four division headquarters of the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, the Secret Security Organization’s computer center and intelligence archives, a helicopter base in Samarra, and airfields in Baiji, Taji, and Kut. Eavesdropping and jamming facilities, telephone exchanges, radio and television transmitters in Baghdad and Basra were knocked out too. Iraq’s WMD and missiles sites were also targeted. That included the Biological Research Center at Baghdad University, which had been in the lead of the country’s biological weapons program, the Fallujah III and Habaniya Castor Oil plants both of which were believed to be behind the production of ricin, the missile research and development centers in Anbar and Ninewa, and liquid engine and missile fabrication sites. Two of the airbases struck were also believed to house drones that could be used to deliver WMD. The targets could be divided up into four distinct categories. First hit was the country’s air defense network, so that planes could operate safely over Iraq. Second, were the WMD facilities. Those were a combination of factories that produced components for biological and chemicals weapons and research labs. Third, was the missile industry. The West believed that missiles were the main way Saddam planned on delivering his WMD against other countries, so it went after the plants that produced parts for them. General Anthony Zinni, who was in charge of the operation, limited the number of WMD and missile sites to those that could be hit with certainty. Finally, were the government offices. These appeared to be aimed at denying Saddam the ability to maintain his totalitarian control over society, and put down any revolt that might follow Desert Fox. Helicopters for example, were used to suppress the 1991 uprisings by Shiites and Kurds following the Gulf War. The secret services, Republican Guard, and communication targets denied Baghdad the ability to collect information, give orders, spread propaganda, monitor the public, destroyed files on the population, and damaged the units that were supposed to protect the regime. All together they were meant to bring down Saddam.
The cause of Operation Desert Fox was Saddam’s continued skirting of United Nations’ resolutions about his weapons programs. From 1997-1998 Baghdad had tried to stifle inspections by clearing sites, hiding and destroying documents, and not allowing U.N. personnel into certain facilities. In February 1998, Iraq signed an agreement with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that was supposed to ease the process and allow inspectors into presidential sites, which were suspected repositories of secret papers. Then in July, a huge stash of documents was found at the Iraqi Air Force headquarters that covered chemical weapons used during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqis ended up seizing the files. The next month, Baghdad refused to cooperate with the inspectors, and they shut down their operations by October as a result. Saddam had come to believe that no matter what his government did, the inspections and U.N. sanctions would not end. By 1998 there was no real work on WMD anymore, and only missile development was still going on. The search by that point was mostly about finding documentation on the extent of Iraq’s programs. Saddam had tired of the entire process, and therefore found no reason to work with the inspectors anymore. The result, was that on December 15, they withdrew, opening the way for Operation Desert Fox in retaliation by the U.S. and England.
Many within the U.S. were critical of the attack. Republicans were in the forefront of criticizing the operation. For most of 1998, President Clinton had been entangled in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Some Republicans claimed that Desert Fox was a means to district the public from the scandal. Many also felt that the short duration of the attack accomplished little. Daniella Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute for instance, said Desert Fox did nothing. Richard Perle who had served in the Reagan administration said that Clinton was afraid to take firmer action against Saddam. Kenneth Pollack who was a former analyst from the CIA, and a member of the National Security Council at the time, later stated that Saddam came out on top, because the attack was severely limited, and inspectors had withdrawn. Charles Duelfer who was the head inspector later wrote that Desert Fox was “feckless,” and Iraq was free to continue with its WMD programs with no U.N. presence. Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote that the attack had no impact upon Saddam’s behavior, and made him look down upon the West’s military capabilities since he survived what the U.S. and England touted as the largest attack since the Gulf War. These statements were a mix of partisanship and analysis. By 1998, Republicans were attacking Clinton about everything, so it was no surprise they did the same about Desert Fox. Pollack, Duelfer, and Cordesman on the other hand, believed that four days of bombing could do little, and more importantly Saddam was given a free hand with no more weapons inspectors in his country. He could therefore hide his programs, and start new work if he wanted to with no outside interference. That was the popular opinion until after the 2003 invasion.
|Gen. Zinni commander of Desert Fox believed that it almost led to a revolt against Saddam (Wikipedia)|
General Zinni was much more positive about the campaign he had just commanded. The General knew that any military strike could only have limited impact upon the WMD program. Since some precursors, agents, and weapons could be made in small rooms, there was no way to eliminate those elements. What Zinni would later point out, was that the strike caused fear of a coup. In January 1999, the general said that Saddam was executing officers, and rounding up dissenters out of fear of an uprising. His ability to dominate society had been weakened by striking communication, intelligence, and internal security offices. To Zinni, the operation therefore almost brought down the regime.
Investigations after the 2003 invasion of Iraq found that Operation Desert Fox had mixed impacts upon Saddam’s weapons programs. In terms of missiles, Iraq was able to work on them more after the inspectors left. The Iraq Survey Group that was tasked with finding Iraq’s WMD, discovered that Baghdad sped up its missile program after Desert Fox, and attempted to use loopholes in sanctions to acquire more technology and parts. In terms of WMD however, the opposite was found. The Iraqi Survey Group discovered that Desert Fox ended the last vestiges of the country’s operations. Afterward, the various networks were allowed to atrophy and die. Iraq realized that it would never be able to restart its programs like before on a large scale with sanctions still in place, and fazed them out. David Kay, who was the first director of the Survey Group was surprised by the interviews he did with Iraqis when they talked about the impact of Desert Fox, because he had long been critical of the operation. Kay passed on his findings to Congress in October 2003. Overall, Desert Fox proved to be far more effective then initially thought. One of the stated goals of the operation was to degrade Iraq’s weapons programs. It turned out that the strike was the last straw, and WMD work largely ceased afterward, even though missile development continued.
Operation Desert Fox was widely derided for years, but turned out to have a far larger impact upon Iraq than most critics believed. Only lasting four days, many analysts doubted that it could have much affect upon Saddam Hussein. After all, he was still in power, and many thought that with inspectors no longer in the country, Iraq would restart its weapons programs. As it turned out, Iraq had destroyed most of its WMD stockpiles, and was largely trying to hide the extent of its programs from the outside world by 1998. Desert Fox convinced the regime that the U.S. was intent on maintaining sanctions to contain the government, and there was no way for it to rebuild its WMD effort as a result. Those operations ended, with only some small-scale work on toxins for assassinations left. This was not known until after 2003 however when Saddam was overthrown, and outside experts were able to go through all of Iraq’s documents, and interview its personnel. Even though Desert Fox was very limited in scope, it came at just the right time in the history of the Saddam regime to put an end to its weapons of mass destruction.
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Good article Joel, I wonder if the lessons learnt have anything to do with planning an attack on Iran?
I doubt it. I think the conventional wisdom still is that Desert Fox was too brief to do anything. Plus remember it was only effective because it came at the right time after 8 years of sanctions, far tougher than anything Iran is facing right now.
a war based on lies. no WMD found.
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