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Exposed: Britain and America's merciless secret blitz on Iraq

By Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent,

WITH little publicity - and amid virtual indifference in western capitals - US and British aircraft have staged well over 70 air strikes against Iraq over the past five weeks, inflicting more damage than the pre-Christmas Anglo-American bombardment. And pilots flying out of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have now received new rules of engagement which allow them to open fire on Iraqi installations, even if they are not directly threatened.

The air offensive has been carefully calibrated to avoid criticism or public debate - but coincides with Washington's renewed efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraqi missile sites have been attacked without warning and radar stations targeted solely because their presence - rather than any offensive activity - was said to menace American forces in the Gulf.

Just over two weeks ago, for example, US aircraft bombed a Russian-made CSSC-3 "Seersucker" anti-ship missile battery on the Fao peninsula which, according to a spokesman, "could have [sic] threatened shipping in the Gulf." Military sources say there was no evidence that missiles were about to be fired.

By attacking Iraq almost every day while issuing only routine information about the targets, American and British officials have also ensured that their "salami" bombardment has provoked little or no interest in the press; newspapers now frequently carry little more than a paragraph about air strikes which would have captured front page headlines a year ago. Only when US missiles have hit civilian areas has the mildest criticism been heard. Even then, it has been muted because of fears that condemnation would support Saddam Hussein's own propaganda.

In fact, the most notorious incident - when an American AGM-130 missile exploded in a Basra housing complex - turns out to have been more bloody than the Iraqis themselves admitted at the time. Although initial reports spoke of 11 civilians killed in the 25 January attack, a total of 17 people died that day and almost 100 were wounded.

A United Nations report, compiled by Hans von Sponeck, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in Baghdad, states that two missiles hit civilian areas 16 miles apart, the first in Basra - where a woman and five children were among the dead - and the second in the village of Abu Khasib, where five women and five children were killed.

In other words, most of the victims were children. A Pentagon spokesman admitted to the Basra attack, responding to the casualties with the words: "I want to repeat that we are not targeting civilians."

Saddam's own tactics - of provoking American forces and threatening their Gulf allies - has provided the US and British governments with reasons for its virtually hidden war against Iraq this year.

Having declared the Anglo-American "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq invalid, his air defence batteries have fired at US and British aircraft; his warning to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that they would face retaliation if they continued to allow American planes to use their air bases angered the Gulf states at the very moment when they were voicing growing concern about the attacks. An offer from Saddam of a financial reward for Iraqi crews who shot down raiding aircraft went unclaimed: his batteries are hopelessly inferior to American and British technology.

The air offensive began at the New Year with five American attacks in two weeks. On 11 January, US aircraft attacked Iraqi missile sites from bases in Turkey - an incident that coincided with an announcement that the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was to visit the Gulf. She was seeking Arab support for the continuation of UN sanctions, which have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi children, and for Washington's plans to topple Saddam.

Almost daily air raids continued to the end of January, by which time British fighter-bombers were joining US planes. On 31 January, for instance, eight British and American jets were attacking "communications facilities" in southern Iraq.

A statement from the Americans on 4 February that US and British planes had by then destroyed 40 missile batteries - adding that this alone constituted greater damage than was caused to Iraq in the whole December air bombardment - passed without comment. Neither Washington nor London explained whether the attacks had UN backing - they did not - and Tony Benn's warning that the raids were creating a "culture of violence" went unheeded.

On 11 February, General Sir Michael Rose, a former UN force commander in Bosnia, condemned the offensive in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute."The continual TV images of the West's high-technology systems causing death and destruction to people in the Third World will not be tolerated forever by civilised people," Sir Michael said.

But his remarks were largely ignored. Instead, US officials continued their fruitless attempts to form a united Iraqi opposition to President Saddam and to find Arab support for their plans. Despite Iraq's threats against Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Gulf states were hostile to all such American plotting, fearing the break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia Muslim states in the event of a government collapse in Baghdad.

When President Saddam threatened to strike at the Gulf states which permitted US planes to use their bases, Mrs Albright issued another of her supposedly tough statements. Iraq would face retaliation if he dared strike America's friends in the region, she announced. But what retaliation? With Iraq suffering frequent military punishment, what could Mrs Albright inflict worse than the current air bombardment? The US, it seems, has committed the same errors in the Gulf that Israel once committed in Lebanon.

Prior to 1982, Israeli threats of a mass invasion would cow Lebanese and Palestinians alike. But once the invasion took place - and once it was clear that Israeli troops could be killed in large numbers - the threat of an Israeli military offensive lost its power to create fear.

Similarly with the Americans. The Anglo-American attacks before Christmas were designed to "teach Saddam Hussein a lesson" for blocking arms inspections. But the inspectors never returned to Iraq, their top man admitted collaborating with Israel and the whole Unscom team is now virtually non-existent. The bombings did not humble the ghastly Saddam; indeed, they inspired him to dare the Americans into further military action.

To what purpose? Iraqi troops around Basra have been reinforced, although some missile batteries have been withdrawn from northern Iraq. In Baghdad, six more civilian deaths were announced - one in an air raid near Najaf on 10 February and five more (with 22 wounded) in southern Iraq five days later. On 4 February, a US official said that the "no-fly" zones had been "quiet in recent days" - a statement that came only two days after US jets had bombed the anti-ship missile base at Fao.

All of which proves that it is easier to start a war than to end one. Perhaps this thought has occurred to the US strategists pouring over their Serbian map co-ordinates in recent days - as they turn their attention from the Beast of Baghdad to the Beast of Belgrade.

Target timetable

  • 11 JANUARY US jets attack "missile sites" in northern Iraq.
  • 12 JANUARY US planes attack "radar sites" in northern Iraq.
  • 13 JANUARY Americans announce attacks on "radar bases" in northern Iraq.
  • 14 January US jets attack "air defence systems" in Iraq. A spokesman says an F-16 pilot fired a HARM missile after his plane was tracked by Iraqi radar and an F-15 dropped a precision-guided bomb on a surface-to-air missile site.
  • 24 January US attacks "missile installations" in northern Iraq.
  • 26 January American attacks in both northern and southern Iraq. Air bombardments around Basra kill 17 people, most of them children. The US, acknowledging that one of its missiles went off course, says it is "not targeting civilians".
  • 28 January Americans attack "anti-aircraft batteries" in northern Iraq.
  • 30 January US strikes at six "air defence sites" around Mosul.
  • 31 January British and American aircraft attack "communications facilities" in southern Iraq. President Saddam Hussein offers cash rewards to Iraqis who manage to shoot down American or British planes.
  • 2 February US planes from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Gulf attack a Russian-made anti-ship missile battery on the Fao peninsula.
  • 2 February Iraq claims Saudi pilots have joined the air bombardment.
  • 4 February US Defence Secretary William Cohen says Iraq is withdrawing missile batteries.
  • 10 February Iraq says one man killed in Najaf province when US planes attack air defences in the region and at Qar.
  • 14 February Iraq warns Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of attack if they allow US and British warplanes to continue use of their air bases. Washington warns Iraq of "retaliation".
  • 15 February Iraq says five people were killed and 22 wounded in air raids in southern Iraq.

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