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Saturday, March 22

Administration cautious on how war is perceived

By Jon Frandsen | GNS

WASHINGTON - As the intense bombing of the "shock and awe" phase of the war on Iraq began unfolding, the United States sought to make sure the world knows about the great lengths being taken to avoid civilian casualties.

"The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck is as impressive as anything anyone could see," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Friday.

While acknowledging that bombing "has to be a terribly unpleasant circumstance" for anyone in Baghdad, Rumsfeld said those on the ground "will have an opportunity to see the precision with which we're going about this task. This is not an attack on the Iraqi people, it's not an attack on the country of Iraq."

Why are Rumsfeld and other administration officials so sensitive about how the attack is perceived?

First and foremost is the possible backlash from world opinion - opinion that was largely against the war even before it started.

"It would be really bad news if the United States was seen as playing fast and loose with civilians while keep their own forces at safe distances," said Rajan Menon of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Of particular concern is any possibility of inflaming what is now being called "the Arab Street" - everyday Muslims in the region, especially in nations with moderate governments that may have a somewhat tenuous hold on power, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"There would be nothing a bin Laden would like more than a picture of a bombed out mosque or a school or a hospital to mobilize people," Menon added.

The concern about avoiding civilian targets could be seen not just in the almost total reliance on precision bombs, but the strategy of the war so far.

The first two days of bombing were light and surgical, aimed entirely at the top members of the Iraqi regime and military targets, with the hope that Saddam's henchmen would give up and spare the country a broader war. While far more intense, the shock-and-awe campaign is also aimed at military and command and control targets - with the same goal of stepping up pressure until the top leadership collapses or surrenders.

"They are desperate to show that this is not a war against Islam, it is not a war against the people," said Thomas Keaney, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "They even are trying to avoid fighting the army, which is something new in a war."

Keaney said another strategy is also evident. Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon is avoiding important infrastructure like power plants, bridges and dams. "The lights are still on in Baghdad," he said.

One reason, he said, was to avoid hardship on ordinary Iraqis as much as possible.

Second, Keaney added, is "the less damage we do, the less damage we have to deal with and pay for after the war."

But Rumsfeld made clear his immediate concern was the impressions being given the world.

Two things made Rumsfeld bridle Friday: the impression given by the constant television pictures of Baghdad aflame and comparisons to the carpet bombing of Vietnam and World War II.

"What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq," he said of the television pictures coming from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. "What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq. We're seeing that particularized perspective that that reporter or that commentator or that television camera happens to be able to see at that moment."

The tonnage of munitions being dropped during the latest campaign may rival those dropped on Hanoi or Dresden, but the weapons have a precision beyond the wildest dreams of military planners fighting the Vietnamese and Germans.

"And it's not a handful of weapons, it's the overwhelming majority of the weapons that have that precision," Rumsfeld said.