1998: Bombing of Military Sites in Iraq Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At the conclusion of the Gulf War in early 1991, restrictions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations included an agreement that required United Nations (U.N.) inspectors to visit sites within the country for the purpose of verifying compliance with the treaty terms governing the production of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Over the next several years, Iraq repeatedly violated the agreement and attempted to renegotiate new terms, backing down only when the threat of retaliation appeared imminent.

At the conclusion of the Gulf War in early 1991, restrictions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations included an agreement that required United Nations (U.N.) inspectors to visit sites within the country for the purpose of verifying compliance with the treaty terms governing the production of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Over the next several years, Iraq repeatedly violated the agreement and attempted to renegotiate new terms, backing down only when the threat of retaliation appeared imminent.

On October 31, 1998, Iraqi officials suspended all cooperation with the U.N. inspectors, prompting U.S. president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair to order additional troops and ships into the region for a possible military response. While the military coordinated the movement of men and matériel into the Persian Gulf area, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan contacted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in an effort to persuade him to reconsider his position. As negotiations continued, Clinton authorized National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to inform the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the strike should commence on the following day.

At 8:00 a.m. eastern standard time on November 14, the Cable News Network (CNN) reported that an Iraqi government announcement would be made shortly, prompting Clinton temporarily to place the strike on hold. Later that morning, a letter arrived from Baghdad in which Iraq agreed to permit the return of U.N. inspectors, but since the dispatch contained what appeared to be conditions, Clinton rejected the offer. The following day, Clinton received a second letter from Iraq, clarifying its position and informing him that the “conditions” were meant as preferences only. A third letter that officially rescinded Iraq’s decision to end cooperation with U.N. inspectors arrived later that afternoon. Clinton suspended the U.S. military operation and contacted Blair, who then ordered British troops to follow the lead of the American forces.

On November 17, U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq, but within one week, Iraqi leaders denied their requests for access to specific documents, claiming that the demands were provocative and designed to justify a military attack against their country. For the next three weeks, Iraq continually denied U.N. inspectors access to the reports, leading Richard Butler, the chief U.N. inspector, to issue a statement on December 15 stating that Hussein had failed to fulfill the earlier promises and instead had placed additional restrictions on U.N. investigators.

Antiaircraft fire again illuminates the sky over Baghdad after British and American aircraft resume bombing attacks during the early hours of December 17, 1998. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Military Action Begins

On December 16, as the U.N. team left Baghdad, Clinton conferred with his national security advisers regarding the situation. Domestically an attack against Iraq on the eve of the House of Representatives’ vote on impeachment articles might be suspicious, but international concerns over initiating an attack during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, then just days away, required an immediate response. Clinton authorized the deployment of more than two hundred aircraft and twenty warships, including the USS Enterprise along with fifteen B-52 bombers carrying more than four hundred cruise missiles and a variety of other arms. Targets included military installations and possible chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons sites as well as the barracks of the Republican Guard. A second attack on the following day knocked out additional military air defense sites for the protection of U.S. and British pilots. Although the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session throughout the day, no course of action was decided upon.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy commenced Operation Desert Fox, attacking at 3:10 p.m. eastern standard time, deploying two hundred Tomahawk missiles from ships located in the Persian Gulf. One and one-half hours later, the president informed Congress of the attack. Shortly after 5:00 p.m. eastern standard time, the first missiles landed in Iraq as the White House announced that a “substantial” attack was underway. During prime time, Clinton informed the American public about the strike against Iraq and warned Saddam Hussein that any violation of treaty obligations would be dealt with swiftly and severely. An hour later, Republicans voted to delay the impeachment hearings.

Consequences

Critics of President Clinton questioned the timing of the air strike, raising concerns that Operation Desert Fox was initiated to push the impeachment hearings from the front page of the news. Congressional members, including Representatives Joe L. Barton and Ron Paul of Texas, Senator Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, and Senator Richard Shelby, supported military action against Hussein but argued that Clinton had already paused the strike before and should not have initiated hostilities while facing the impeachment vote. Others, including both Republicans and Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator John Chafee, and Senator Sam Brownback, supported the president’s action, arguing that military action was necessary immediately because the Muslim holy month prevented strikes for the next thirty days, during which time, Hussein could have prepared his forces for a confrontation.

During the next year, Iraq rebuilt most of the military sites destroyed in the bombing. The United Nations, concerned with the increasing threat from Iraq, proposed a resolution designed to persuade Iraq into once again accepting U.N. inspectors in exchange for a loosening of restrictions on the country’s economy. On December 19, 1999, the United Nations passed a resolution, by a vote of 11–0, with the Soviet Union, China, France, and Malaysia abstaining, calling for the removal of the $5.26 billion limit imposed on the sale of oil for food and the lifting of sanctions against the country for renewable 120-day periods once inspectors verified disarmament. Iraq rejected the resolution and prepared to accept the consequences. Although official sanctions remained in place for most items, the U.N. agreed to gradually increase the total amount of oil that could be sold to pay for food and other humanitarian items such as medical supplies.

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