WASHINGTON -- President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad Saturday after 'compelling evidence' showed the Saddam Hussein regime plotted to assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait last April.
In a nationally televised address from the Oval Office, Clinton announced the Tomahawk missile strikes were launched from U.S. ships located in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf at 4:22 p.m. EDT.
In a preliminary statement, he said every effort was made to minimize civilian casualties. There was no immediate comment from Baghdad which was taken by surprise by the early morning attack.
In a Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said U.S. intelligence reports revealed the assassination plot came from 'the highest levels of the Iraqi government.' Aspin said after the intelligence reports were reviewed, the Defense Department gave Clinton several options for action.
Aspin said the president chose to 'target the agency responsible for planning and conducting the crime.'
That target was the Iraqi Intelligence Service, housed in a large multi-story building in downtown Baghdad. 'The target was Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people,' Aspin said.
Fourteen missles were launched from the USS Peterson, a destroyer sailing the Red Sea, and nine from the USS Chancellorsville, a gudided missle carrier in the Persian Gulf.
The Tomahawk is a highly accurate sea-launched cruise missile with a range of about 1,550 miles and a cruising speed of about 550 mph. There were no immediate reports on the success of the attack on the ISS complex.
At a White House briefing senior administration officials said they were 'highly confident' the evidence of the origin of the plot led straight to Baghdad.
Officials said shortly after the attack, Clinton telephoned Bush, who is vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine and that Bush 'supported' the operation. In addition, Clinton dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Maine to brief Bush on the action.
It was the first time that Clinton was personally and directly involved in a military action as president. But he followed in the footsteps of Bush himself, who had conducted a triumphant war against Hussein from Jan. 15, 1991 until Feb. 4, 1992 with United Nations and Persian Gulf allies.
Calling the failed assassination plot 'particularly loathesome and cowardly,' Clinton said the plot against President Bush was 'an attack against our country and against all Americans.' It could not go unanswered, he said.
Officials said that the U.S. acted unilaterally under article 51 of the United Nations charter which permits nations to act in self defense. They said it sent a 'powerful message' to Saddam to refrain from further acts of international terrorism.
Intelligence officials said that the Iraqi government had arranged a powerful car bombing to carry out the plot when Bush was to deliver an address at Kuwait University on April 14. Officials said Bush knew of the risks involved in visiting Kuwait, where Iraq had threatened revenge against him for its defeat in the Gulf War.
Clinton said before ordering the attack, he was in contact with major allied leaders and congresional leaders. He also called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider action against Iraq.
The President said that the action was also aimed at deterring international terrorism.
It was the second time that Iraq had been attacked by the United States since the end of the Gulf War. Bush ordered a missile attack on Iraq days before he left office in retaliation against Iraq's violations of 'no-fly zones' set up by the U.S. and its European allies after the end of the war.
In citing the steps leading to the attack, Clinton, said:
'This past April the Kuwaiti government uncovered what they suspected was a car bombing plot to assassinate former President George Bush while he was visiting Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti authorities arrested 16 suspects including two Iraqi nationals. Following those arrests, I ordered our own intelligence and law enforcement agencies to conduct a thorough and independent investigation.
'Over the past several weeks, officials from those intelligence agencies, reviewed a range of intelligence information, traveled to Kuwait and elsewhere, extensively interviewed suspects and thoroughly examined the forensic evidence.
'This Thursday, Attorney General Janet Reno and director of Central Intelligence (James) Woolsey gave me their findings. Based on their investigation, there was compelling evidence that there was in fact a plot to assassinate former President Bush and that plot included the use of a powerful bomb made in Iraq was directed and pursued by Iraqi intelligence.'
U.S. officials had indicated during the past month that military actions against Saddam may take place, but said they wanted to wait until Kuwaiti authorities tried the 16 suspects currently in custody.
Raed Al-Rifai, a Kuwaiti diplomat in Washington, said at the time that three 'Iraqi intellligence escaped.'
Their plan was to detonate several car bombs, which were discovered, during ceremonies honoring Bush for his role in repeling Iraqi troops who had invaded Kuwait prior to the Gulf War, Rifai and U.S. officials said.
Bush was joined by his wife, Barbara and two of their sons, former Secretary of State James Baker, former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady during his three-day visit.
Kuwaiti Defense Minister Sheikh Ali-Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah told his Parliament after the plot was uncovered that the assassination of Bush would have been a side benefit in the operation, which was aimed at destabilizing the Kuwati government.
'The main target was to destabilize order in Kuwait,' Sheikh Ali said. 'They were planning to seize the opportunity of Bush's visit in order, as people say, to kill two birds with one stone.'
Sheikh Ali said the intelligence agents involved in the plot were made up of Iraqis, stateless Arabs and Kuwaitis. Al Rifai said they had snuck across the porous desert frontier between the two Arab nations.
In addition to detonating car bombs, Sheikh Ali said, the alleged assasins planned suicide bombings.