Errors Are Seen in Early Attacks on Iraqi Leaders


The New York Times

Published: June 13, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 12 - The United States launched many more failed airstrikes on a far broader array of senior Iraqi leaders during the early days of the war last year than has previously been acknowledged, and some caused significant civilian casualties, according to senior military and intelligence officials.

Only a few of the 50 airstrikes have been described in public. All were unsuccessful, and many, including the two well-known raids on Saddam Hussein and his sons, appear to have been undercut by poor intelligence, current and former government officials said.

The strikes, carried out against so-called high-value targets during a one-month period that began on March 19, 2003, used precision-guided munitions against at least 13 Iraqi leaders, including Gen. Izzat Ibrahim, Iraq's No. 2 official, the officials said.

General Ibrahim is still at large, along with at least one other top official who was a target of the failed raids. That official, Maj. Gen. Rafi Abd al-Latif Tilfah, the former head of the Directorate of General Security, and General Ibrahim are playing a leadership role in the anti-American insurgency, according to a briefing document prepared last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The broad scope of the campaign and its failures, along with the civilian casualties, have not been acknowledged by the Bush administration.

A report in December by Human Rights Watch, based on a review of four strikes, concluded that the singling out of Iraqi leadership had "resulted in dozens of civilian casualties that the United States could have prevented if it had taken additional precautions."

The poor record in the strikes has raised questions about the intelligence they were based on, including whether that intelligence reflected deception on the part of Iraqis, the officials said. The March 19, 2003, attempt to kill Mr. Hussein and his sons at the Dora Farms compound, south of Baghdad, remains a subject of particular contention.

A Central Intelligence Agency officer reported, based primarily on information provided by satellite telephone from an Iraqi source, that Mr. Hussein was in an underground bunker at the site. That prompted President Bush to accelerate the timetable for the beginning of the war, giving the go-ahead to strikes by precision-guided bombs and cruise missiles, senior intelligence officials said.

But in an interview last summer, Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, of the Air Force, who directed the air campaign during the invasion, acknowledged that inspections after the war had concluded that no such bunker existed. Various internal reviews by the military and the C.I.A. have still not resolved the question of whether Mr. Hussein was at the location at all, according to senior military and intelligence officials, although the C.I.A. maintains that he was probably at Dora Farms.

One possibility, a senior intelligence official and a senior military officer said, is that Mr. Hussein was above ground in one of the houses that were not destroyed in the raid.

In the raid, the Air Force primarily used deep-penetrating munitions because of their ability to destroy an underground bunker. The person who was the primary source of the information about the bunker was killed in the raid, according to intelligence officials, but had described it using an Arabic word, manzul, that could have been translated either as place of refuge or as bunker.

A C.I.A. officer who relayed that report from a base in northern Iraq translated the word as bunker, said a senior intelligence official, who confirmed a detailed report that first appeared in "Plan of Attack," a book by the journalist Bob Woodward.

A Warning Sign

In retrospect, the failures were an early warning sign about the thinness of American intelligence on Iraq and on Mr. Hussein's inner circle. Some of the officials who survived the raids, including General Ibrahim, have become leaders of what the Defense Intelligence Agency now believes has been a planned anti-American insurgency, several intelligence officials said.

"It was all just guesswork on where they were," said a senior military officer. Another official, a senior Army officer who served in Iraq, described early intelligence on the Iraqi leadership as producing "a lot of dry holes."

A third senior military officer described the quantity of "no kidding, actionable intel" as having been limited, but added, "In a real fight, you go with what you've got."