1998 bombing of Iraq

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Bombing of Iraq
(Operation Desert Fox)
Part of Iraqi no-fly zones conflict
Desert fox missile.jpg
A Tomahawk cruise missile is fired from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998
Date16–19 December 1998

Coalition military success[1]
Politically inconclusive[1]

  • Much of Iraqi military infrastructure destroyed
  • Iraq bars weapon inspectors from returning
  • Iraq begins shooting at British and American planes in the Iraqi no-fly zones
 United States
 United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
United States Bill Clinton
United States William Cohen
United States Anthony Zinni
United Kingdom Tony Blair
United Kingdom George Robertson
United Kingdom Michael Boyce
Saddam Hussein
Sultan al-Tai
30,000 personal
United States 200+ aircraft
40 naval vessels
United Kingdom 12 Panavia Tornado aircraft[2]
~ 100 sites and facilities[2]
Casualties and losses
None 242–1,400 soldiers killed or wounded
all targets were destroyed or suffered varying levels of damage

The 1998 bombing of Iraq (code-named Operation Desert Fox) was a major four-day bombing campaign on Iraqi targets from 16 to 19 December 1998, by the United States and the United Kingdom. On 16 December 1998, President of the United States Bill Clinton announced that he had ordered strikes against Iraq. The contemporaneous justification for the strikes was Iraq's failure to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and its interference with United Nations Special Commission inspectors who were looking for weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors were sent back in 1997 and were repeatedly refused access to certain sites thus compelling the U.S to launch strikes. However, Clinton's decision was criticized and challenged by many key members of Congress, accusing Clinton of directing attention away from ongoing impeachment proceedings against him.

The operation was a major flare-up in the Iraq disarmament crisis. The stated goal of the cruise missile and bombing attacks was to strike military and security targets in Iraq that contributed to Iraq's ability to produce, store, maintain, and deliver weapons of mass destruction. The bombing campaign had been anticipated since February 1998 and incurred wide-ranging criticism and support, in and outside of the US.[3] Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates initially announced they would deny the U.S. military the use of local bases for the purpose of air strikes against Iraq.[4]


U.S. President Bill Clinton had been working under a regional security framework of dual containment, which involved punishing Saddam Hussein's regime with military force whenever Iraq challenged the United States or the international community.

Although there was no Authorization for Use of Military Force as there was during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom or a declaration of war, as in World War II, Clinton signed into law H.R. 4655, the Iraq Liberation Act on 31 October 1998.[5] The new act appropriated funds for Iraqi opposition groups in the hope of removing Saddam Hussein from power and replacing his regime with a democratic government. Despite the act's intention of support of opposition groups, Clinton justified his order for US action under the act.

The act also stated that:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces (except as provided in section 4(a)(2)) in carrying out this Act.

Section 4(a)(2) states:

The President is authorized to direct the drawdown of defense articles from the stocks of the Department of Defense, defense services of the Department of Defense, and military education and training for [Iraqi democratic opposition] organizations.

Just prior to Desert Fox, the U.S. nearly led a bombing campaign against Saddam called Operation Desert Thunder. It was abandoned at the last minute when the Iraqi leader allowed the UN to continue weapons inspections.[6]

"Degrading," not eliminating[edit]

A B-1B is loaded with bombs at Ellsworth AFB on 17 December 1998.

Clinton administration officials said the aim of the mission was to "degrade" Iraq's ability to manufacture and use weapons of mass destruction, not to eliminate it. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the distinction while the operation was going on:[7]

I don't think we're pretending that we can get everything, so this is – I think – we are being very honest about what our ability is. We are lessening, degrading his ability to use this. The weapons of mass destruction are the threat of the future. I think the president explained very clearly to the American people that this is the threat of the 21st century. […] [W]hat it means is that we know we can't get everything, but degrading is the right word.

The main targets of the bombing included weapons research and development installations, air defense systems, weapon and supply depots, and the barracks and command headquarters of Saddam's elite Republican Guard. Also, one of Saddam's lavish presidential palaces came under attack. Iraqi air defense batteries, unable to target the American and British jets, began to blanket the sky with near random bursts of flak fire. The air strikes continued unabated however, and cruise missile barrages launched by naval vessels added to the bombs dropped by the planes. By the fourth night, most of the specified targets had been damaged or destroyed, the operation was deemed a success and the air strikes ended.

Military operations[edit]

Two F/A-18C Hornet pilots on board USS Enterprise discussing the results of an air strike conducted on 17 December

U.S. Navy aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Three (CVW 3), flying from USS Enterprise, and Patrol Squadron Four (PATRON FOUR), flew combat missions from the Persian Gulf in support of ODF. Of significance, the operation marked the first time that women flew combat sorties as U.S. Navy strike fighter pilots[8][9] and the first combat use of the U.S. Air Force's B-1B bomber from the 28th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at RAFO Thumrait, Sultanate of Oman. Ground units included the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), of which 2nd Battalion 4th Marines served as the ground combat element; based from USS Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group, which included USS Germantown and USS Dubuque. The U.S. Air Force sent several sorties of F-16s from the 34th Fighter Squadron, and 522nd Fighter Squadron into Iraq to fly night missions in support of Operation Desert Fox; they were based at Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait.

On the second night of Operation Desert Fox, aircrews flying 12 B-52s took off from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and launched 74 conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs). The missiles found their mark striking multiple Iraqi targets including six of President Saddam Hussein's palaces, several Republican Guard barracks, and the Ministries of Defense and Military Industry. The following evening, two more B-52 crews launched 16 more CALCMs. Over a two-night period aircrews from the 2nd and 5th Bomb Wings launched a total of 90 CALCMs. The B-1 bomber made its combat debut by striking at Republican Guard targets. Also on 17 Dec, USAF aircraft based in Kuwait participated, as did British Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft. The British contribution totaled 15 percent of the sorties flown in Desert Fox.[10]

By 19 December, U.S. and British aircraft had struck 97 targets, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen claimed the operation was a success. Supported by Secretary Cohen, as well as United States Central Command commander General Anthony C. Zinni and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry H. Shelton, President Bill Clinton declared "victory" in Operation Desert Fox. In total, the 70-hour campaign saw U.S. forces strike 85 percent of their targets, 75 percent of which were considered "highly effective" strikes. More than 600 sorties were flown by more than 300 combat and support aircraft, and 600 air dropped munitions were employed, including 90 air-launched cruise missiles and 325 Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAM). Operation Desert Fox inflicted serious damage to Iraq's missile development program, although its effects on any WMD program were not clear. Nevertheless, Operation Desert Fox was the largest strike against Iraq since the early 1990s Persian Gulf War, until the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom.In October 2021 General Zinni gave an upbeat bomb damage assessment of the operation [11]

97 sites were targeted in the operation with 415 cruise missiles and 600 bombs, including 11 weapons production or storage facilities, 18 security facilities for weapons, 9 military installations, 20 government CCC facilities, 32 surface-to-air missile batteries, 6 airfields, and 1 oil refinery. According to U.S. Defense Department assessments on 20 December 10 of these targets were destroyed, 18 severely damaged, 18 moderately damaged, 18 lightly damaged, and 23 not yet assessed. According to the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, the allied action killed (62) or wounded (180) some 242 Iraqi military personnel. American General Harry Shelton told the U.S. Senate on 5 January 1999, however, that the strikes killed or wounded an estimated 1,400 members of Iraq's Republican Guard.[12]


In reaction to the attack, three of five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, France, and the People's Republic of China) called for lifting of the eight-year oil embargo on Iraq, recasting or disbanding UNSCOM, and firing its chairman, Australian diplomat Richard Butler.[13]


Accusations of U.S. interference in the U.N. inspection process[edit]

Iraq stopped cooperating with the U.N. special commission in the first month of 1998, but diplomacy by Kofi Annan brought fresh agreement and new modalities for the inspection of sensitive sites.[14] Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had earlier accused UNSCOM officials of acting as spies for the United States,[15] charges later supported by Scott Ritter and Bill Tierney.[16]

In a 2005 interview, Ritter criticized the Clinton administration's use of a blocked inspection of a Ba'ath party headquarters to justify the bombing.

Public perception is that the Iraqis were confrontational and blocking the work of the inspectors. In 98% of the inspections, the Iraqis did everything we asked them to because it dealt with disarmament. However when we got into issues of sensitivity, such as coming close to presidential security installations, Iraqis raised a flag and said, "Time out. We got a C.I.A. out there that's trying to kill our president and we're not very happy about giving you access to the most sensitive installations and the most sensitive personalities in Iraq." So we had these modalities, where we agreed that if we came to a site and the Iraqis called it 'sensitive,' we go in with four people.

In 1998, the inspection team went to a site. It was the Baath Party headquarters, like going to Republican Party headquarters or Democratic Party headquarters. The Iraqis said, "You can't come in – you can come in. Come on in." The inspectors said, "The modalities no longer apply." The Iraqis said, "If you don't agree to the modalities, we can't support letting you in," and the Iraqis wouldn't allow the inspections to take place.

Bill Clinton said, "This proves the Iraqis are not cooperating," and he ordered the inspectors out. But you know the United States government ordered the inspectors to withdraw from the modalities without conferring with the Security Council. It took Iraqis by surprise. Iraqis were saying, "We're playing by the rules, why aren't you? If you're not going play by the rules, then it's a game that we don't want to participate in." Bill Clinton ordered the inspectors out. Saddam didn't kick them out.[17]

However, in his 1999 book Endgame Ritter explained that he was the one who had originally pushed for the fateful inspection of the Ba'ath party headquarters over the doubts of his boss Richard Butler and also planned to use 37 inspectors. It was temporarily cancelled due to the fact that Iraq broke off cooperation in August 1998.[18]

In early 1999 it was revealed that the CIA, as well as possibly MI6, had planted agents in the UNSCOM teams, leading the UN to admit that "UNSCOM had directly facilitated the creation of an intelligence collection system for the United States in violation of its mandate."[19] As part of the CIA's Operation Shake the Tree, run by Steve Richter of the Near East Division, a "black box" was installed at UNSCOM's headquarters in Baghdad to eavesdrop on Saddam's presidential communications network. The information collected by the agency was not shared with UNSCOM investigators.[20]

Inspectors not thrown out[edit]

The claim that UNSCOM weapons inspectors were expelled by Iraq has been repeated frequently. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his 5 February 2003 speech before the U.N. Security Council, called for action against Iraq and stated falsely that "Saddam Hussein forced out the last inspectors in 1998".[21] The claim has appeared repeatedly in the news media.[22] However, according to UNSCOM inspector Richard Butler himself, it was U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh, acting on instructions from Washington, who suggested Butler pull his team from Iraq in order to protect them from the forthcoming U.S. and British air strikes:

I received a telephone call from US Ambassador Peter Burleigh inviting me for a private conversation at the US mission... Burleigh informed me that on instructions from Washington it would be "prudent to take measures to ensure the safety and security of UNSCOM staff presently in Iraq." ... I told him that I would act on this advice and remove my staff from Iraq.[23]

Facilities not known to be producing WMD[edit]

Gen. Anthony C. Zinni briefs reporters at The Pentagon following Operation Desert Fox, 21 December 1998.

Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst William Arkin contended in his January 1999 column in The Washington Post that the operation had less to do with WMD and more to do with destabilizing the Iraqi government.

It is clear from the target list, and from extensive communications with almost a dozen officers and analysts knowledgeable about Desert Fox planning, that the U.S.-British bombing campaign was more than a reflexive reaction to Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with UNSCOM's inspectors. The official rationale for Desert Fox may remain the "degrading" of Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and the "diminishing" of the Iraqi threat to its neighbours. But careful study of the target list tells another story.

Thirty-five of the 100 targets were selected because of their role in Iraq's air defense system, an essential first step in any air war, because damage to those sites paves the way for other forces and minimizes casualties all around. Only 13 targets on the list are facilities associated with chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles, and three are southern Republican Guard bases that might be involved in a repeat invasion of Kuwait.

The heart of the Desert Fox list (49 of the 100 targets) is the Iraqi regime itself: a half-dozen palace strongholds and their supporting cast of secret police, guard and transport organizations.[24]

According to Department of Defense personnel with whom Arkin spoke, Central Command chief Anthony Zinni insisted that the U.S. only attack biological and chemical sites that "had been identified with a high degree of certainty." And the reason for the low number of targets, said Arkin, was because intelligence specialists "could not identify actual weapons sites with enough specificity to comply with Zinni's directive."

Dr. Brian Jones was the top intelligence analyst on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons at the Ministry of Defence.[25] He told BBC Panorama in 2004 that Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall did not have a high degree of confidence any of the facilities identified, targeted and bombed in Operation Desert Fox were active in producing weapons of mass destruction. Jones' testimony is supported by the former Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence, John Morrison, who informed the same program that, before the operation had ended, DIS came under pressure to validate a prepared statement to be delivered by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, declaring military activity an unqualified success. Large-scale damage assessment takes time, responded Morrison, therefore his department declined to sign up to a premature statement. "After Desert Fox, I actually sent a note round to all the analysts involved congratulating them on standing firm in the face of, in some cases, individual pressure to say things that they knew weren't true". Later on, after careful assessment and consideration, Defence Intelligence Staff determined that the bombing had not been all that effective.[26]

Within days of speaking out on the program, Morrison was informed by former New Labour cabinet minister Ann Taylor that he was to lose his job as Chief Investigator to the Intelligence and Security Committee.[27][28]

The Duelfer Report concluded in 2004 that Iraq's WMD capability "was essentially destroyed in 1991" following the end of sanctions.[29]: 1 

Distraction from Clinton impeachment scandal[edit]

Some critics of the Clinton administration, including Republican members of Congress,[30] expressed concern over the timing of Operation Desert Fox.[31] The four-day bombing campaign occurred at the same time the U.S. House of Representatives was conducting the impeachment hearing of President Clinton. Clinton was impeached by the House on 19 December, the last day of the bombing campaign. A few months earlier, similar criticism was levelled during Operation Infinite Reach, wherein missile strikes were ordered against suspected terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, on 20 August. The missile strikes began three days after Clinton was called to testify before a grand jury during the Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent nationally televised address later that evening in which Clinton admitted having an inappropriate relationship.[32]

The Operation Infinite Reach attacks became known as "Monica's War" among TV news people, due to the timing. ABC-TV announced to all stations that there would be a special report following Lewinsky's testimony before Congress, then the special report was pre-empted by the report of the missile attacks. The combination of the timing of that attack and Operation Desert Fox led to accusations of a Wag the Dog situation.[33][34] Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs published an article accused Clinton of bombing Iraq to distract from Lewinsky's testimony. This led to speculation that Clinton aide Huma Abedin may have had a role in accusing Clinton of bombing Iraq due to her working there at the time.[35]

Criticism of the extent of the operation[edit]

Other critics, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said the attacks did not go far enough: "I would be amazed if a three-day campaign made a decisive difference," Kissinger said just after the operation ended.

[W]e did not do, in my view, enough damage to degrade it [Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction] for six months. It doesn't make any significant difference because in six months to a year they will be back to where they are and we cannot keep repeating these attacks. [...] At the end of the day what will be decisive is what the situation in the Middle East will be two to three years from now. If Saddam is still there, if he's rearming, if the sanctions are lifted, we will have lost, no matter what spin we put on it.[36]

It is speculated that there were dozens of Iraqi civilians killed by missiles that missed their targets, hundreds in the Iraqi military, and no U.S. or British casualties.[37]

While the bombing was ongoing, the Vanguards of Conquest issued a communique to Islamist groups calling for attacks against the United States "for its arrogance" in bombing Iraq.[38]

According to Charles Duelfer, after the bombing the Iraqi ambassador to the UN told him, "If we had known that was all you would do, we would have ended the inspections long ago."[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Boyne, Walter J., Air Warfare: an International Encyclopedia: A–L, p. 174
  2. ^ a b Conversino, Mark J. (13 July 2005). "Operation Desert Fox: Effectiveness with Unintended Effects" (PDF).
  3. ^ Headlines of 16 February 1998 Democracy Now!
  4. ^ The Possibility of "Mini-Nukes" On Iraq, Democracy Now!, 17 February 1998
  5. ^ Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 Archived 11 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine The Library of Congress.
  6. ^ "Operation Desert Thunder / Desert Viper". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  7. ^ Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Archived 15 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine NewsHour Online Web site (for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer television program on PBS, Web page containing transcript of television interview and titled "Secretary Albright" 17 December 1998, accessed 25 September 2006
  8. ^ "Military Women in Operation Desert Fox". Userpages.aug.com. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
  9. ^ "United States Department of Defense". defenselink.mil.
  10. ^ "Factsheets : Operation Desert Fox". Afhso.af.mil. Archived from the original on 17 February 2013. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
  11. ^ "General Anthony Zinni (Ret.) on Wargaming Iraq, Millennium Challenge, and Competition". 18 October 2021.
  12. ^ Carrington, Anca. "Iraq: Issues, Historical Background, Bibliography." p. 16.
  13. ^ Gellman, Barton (22 December 1998). "Iraq Inspections, Embargo in Danger at U.N. Council". The Washington Post.
  14. ^ Annan, Iraq sign weapons-inspection deal CNN, 23 February 1998
  15. ^ Iraq applauds spy claims BBC News, 7 January 1999
  16. ^ "Inspector a US spy". Daily Mirror. Archived from the original on 25 February 2003. Retrieved 25 January 2008.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link) Daily Mirror, February 2003
  17. ^ Scott Ritter (21 October 2005). "Scott Ritter on the Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein". Democracynow.org. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  18. ^ UNSCOM 255 Endgame (1999)
  19. ^ Gellman, Barton. "Annan Suspicious of UNSCOM Role." The Washington Post. 6 January 1999. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
  20. ^ Fisk, Robert(2006). The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 724.
  21. ^ "Part 5: Biological weapons program" (transcript). U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on the U.S. case against Iraq. CNN. 5 February 2013. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  22. ^ "There They Go Again: The Washington Post's Iraq Tall Tale". Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting(FAIR). 6 March 2000. Retrieved 30 September 2010.
  23. ^ Butler, Richard Saddam Defiant: The Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Crisis of Global Security. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000, p. 224. ISBN 978-0753811160
  24. ^ The Difference Was in the Details The Washington Post, January 17, 1999
  25. ^ Dr Brian Jones "confused" by Prime Minister's evidence to Hutton, BBC, 11 July 2004
  26. ^ A failure of intelligence, BBC Panorama, 9 July 2004
  27. ^ Axed intelligence expert defiant, BBC News, 28 October 2004
  28. ^ What the Papers say – A failure of intelligence BBC News, 11 August 2004
  29. ^ Duelfer, Charles. "Comprehensive Report of the Special Adviser to the DCI on Iraq's WMD" (PDF). Government Publishing Office.
  30. ^ "Conservative Lawmakers Decried Clinton's Attacks Against Osama As 'Wag the Dog'". ThinkProgress.
  31. ^ Hitchens, Christopher. No One Left to Lie To Verso. 1999[page needed]ISBN 978-1-859-84736-7
  32. ^ "Clinton's airstrike motives questioned Many wonder if attack was meant to distract from Lewinsky matter". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 30 January 2022.
  33. ^ "Clinton's airstrike motives questioned Many wonder if attack was meant to distract from Lewinsky matter". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 27 January 2022.
  35. ^ Engel, Pamela. "Clinton campaign denies top aide's involvement in Muslim magazine". Business Insider. Retrieved 27 January 2022.
  36. ^ Interview with Kissinger and Brzezinski. Mission Accomplished? Newshour with Jim Lehrer
  37. ^ Mehta, Monica, 'Counting Casualties', Mother Jones, 27 January 1999. Accessed 19 March 2012
  38. ^ Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Summary of the Security Intelligence Report concerning Mahmoud Jaballah[permanent dead link], 22 February 2008. Appendix A.
  39. ^ Duelfer, Charles, "In Iraq, done in by the Clinton-Lewinsky affair", The Washington Post, reprinted in the Japan Times, 29 February 2012, p. 13.

External links[edit]