The Silence of the Bombs
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
George W. Bush repeatedly insists that Iraq poses a direct military threat to the U.S. This claim seems rather strange in light of the fact that it is the U.S. that has been bombing Iraq -- not just threatening -- nonstop for nearly four years.
Before exploring the history of U.S. attacks on Iraq and the Iraqi government's response -- which has been limited to 1) anti-aircraft attacks within territorial airspace; and 2) appeals to the world community -- let's first address the obvious.
Granted, Saddam Hussein is a bad man. He has murdered his opponents, assassinated members of his governing inner circle and even killed members of his own family. He employed chemical weapons against Iran (using ingredients and technology supplied by the U.S.) and attacked other countries (again, with either the quiet approval or active support of the U.S.). He even eats his pet gazelles.
That said, let's address the question of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). If Saddam still possessed these weapons (and most knowledgeable sources, from the CIA down, claim he does not) why has he neither used, nor threatened to use them in response to the continued -- and increasing -- air bombardment by U.S. and British warplanes?
Those who know him characterize Hussein as "a survivor," not a madman. Like every other world leader, Saddam knows that even the threat of using WMDs would invite a U.S. attack. There is, then, only one situation under which Hussein would ever be likely resort to the use of WMD -- if his country were being invaded and his political power and his life were at stake.
The U.S. simultaneously claims that Iraq has WMDs and that UN weapons inspectors won't be able to find them. In Bush's New World Judicial Order, suspicions and accusations overrule evidence. If the White House is so certain that Iraq still possesses WMDs, it should provide its evidence to the weapons inspectors. That would speed up their work immeasurably.
The big bugaboo is the U.S. claim (again unsubstantiated) that Iraq is again seeking to build a nuclear arsenal. The odd thing about the U.S.'s position on nations with nukes is that nations seeking to acquire nuclear weapons are a grave danger while nations that already have nuclear weapons are somehow less of a threat.
If possessing nuclear weapons were such a concern, the U.S. would be pushing the UN to authorize weapons inspectors to enter Pakistan, Israel, China, France and Britain. I'm surprised that the wily Hussein has not asked the UN to subject the U.S. to "unconditional weapons inspections" since the U.S. maintains perhaps the world's largest stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S.'s greatest fear is not that Hussein would use a nuclear weapon in an act of retaliation (or revenge through terrorist proxies) -- that action would be suicidal and Hussein knows it. What the possession of nuclear arms really means is that the U.S. would no longer be able to threaten Iraq as a dominant military power. If Iraq "had the bomb," Bush would not be able to risk invading the country to expel Hussein and set-up a pro-American ruler to uphold "America's vital interests."
And Now, Some History
On July 25, 1990, eight days before Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein. According to a transcript of the conversation later released to the British press by Iraq, Saddam explained his strategic claims on Iran and Kuwait and asked: "What is the United States' opinion on this?"
The tape transcript records Glaspie's reply: "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."
The Iraqi leader, believing he'd been given the green light, pounced.
Three weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, British reporters confronted Glaspie with the tape as she was leaving the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Before speeding off in her limousine, Glaspie blurted: "Obviously, I didn't think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait."
On Jan. 15, 1991, President George H. W. Bush went to Congress to request authority to wage war. At 3am Baghdad time, Jan. 17, 1991, the U.S.-led coalition unleashed a 24-hour bombing barrage on Iraq that destroyed more targets than the 1942-43 bombing offensive in Europe.
Desert Storm, Desert Fox and the 'No-fly Zones'
Operation Desert Storm was one of the most environmentally destructive non-nuclear wars in world history. Before the short conflict was over, the Gulf would be filled with sunken vessels and spilled crude oil, the oil fields of Kuwait and Iraq would be in flames and storm clouds of soot from hundreds of fires would be carried around the world.
On March 3, 1991, Iraq signed a cease-fire agreement. A month later, the UN added a new condition: removal of economic sanctions was made contingent on Iraq's agreement to disarm and allow UN inspections of its weapons sites.
In 1991, the U.S. and Britain unilaterally claimed the right to fly military missions over two-thirds of Iraq to insure that Hussein's air force could not bomb rebels in the north and south that sought his overthrow. These so-called "no-fly zones" were decreed without UN approval and, as Reuters and other news agencies occasionally note, they have no legal standing and "Iraq does not recognize the zones."
Iraq maintains that it has the right under international law to "defend" its sovereign airspace against overflights by hostile foreign military aircraft. Nonetheless, Iraq tolerated these airborne intrusions -- until Dec. 16, 1998 when the U.S. and Britain launched "Operation Desert Fox," a deadly four-day air attack. After that attack, Iraq ordered its ground forces to begin firing at enemy aircraft. Hussein even posted a $14,000 bounty for anyone who managed to shoot down a U.S. jet.
Economic Sanctions and Dying Children
In 1996, UNICEF reported that economic sanctions imposed on Iraq were responsible for 4,500 "excess deaths" a month among children under 5. Two years later, the World Health Organization reported that sanctions were killing as many as 6,000 Iraqi children each month.
In 1997, UNICEF reported that more than 1.2 million Iraqis, including 750,000 children below the age of 5, had died from starvation and nearly a million more were chronically malnourished.
On Sept. 30, 1998, Dennis Halliday, Director of the UN Oil-for-Food Program resigned to protest the impact of sanctions on the health of Iraqi citizens. (On Feb. 13, 2000, Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, would also resign to protest the effects of sanctions on the starving Iraqi population.)
The Bombing Begins
On Dec. 16, 1998, fighters and bombers from the British RAF and U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps launched a devastating air assault on Iraq under the codename "Operation Desert Fox." The four-day bombing blitz launched more cruise missiles than were fired during Operation Desert Storm. It sparked protests around the world.
The United Nations Association in Britain called the attacks "almost certainly illegal" and warned that the resort to military attack "would almost certainly cause the end of the UNSCOM presence in Iraq."
A second wave of warplanes swept over Iraq on Dec. 28. At least a million pounds of high-tech bombs and missiles rained down on more than 400 military targets. It was the beginning of the longest U.S. air war since Vietnam.
The U.S. air war against Iraq has continued unabated for nearly four years yet, as James W. Crowley observed in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the bombardment remains "largely unreported in the United States and Europe." Needless to say, the details of the bombing campaign are well known to millions of citizens throughout the Arab world.
"We can bomb countries and it's not even news because we do it so often," Peace Action spokesperson Gordon Clark told the Union-Tribune, "And, then we wonder why terrorists are targeting us."
Once again, the U.S. attempt to topple Saddam Hussein's regime through military attack failed. Still, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Henry H. Shelton boasted to the press, Desert Fox killed as many as 1,600 members of Hussein's Republican Guard and seriously damaged 85 percent of the facilities targeted.
Unfortunately, Shelton's figures failed to account for the remaining 15 percent of the strikes.
An on-the-ground investigation by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF ) reported that the bombs and missiles released over Baghdad during the December attack damaged a maternity hospital, a teaching hospital, an outpatients' clinic in the Saddam Medical City and the Health Ministry. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs received a direct hit. Desert Fox's bombs also targeted the capitol's water system, knocking out water supplies for 300,000 people.
The air attack damaged 10 schools in Basra. In Kirkuk a secondary school for Kurdish children took a direct hit. The World Food Program reported that a missile destroyed a storehouse in Tikrit stocked with 2,600 tons of rice.
Since the Pentagon unilaterally declared the existence of the "no-fly zones" over two-thirds of Iraq, U.S. and British warplanes have flown more than 336,000 sorties. Between December 1998 and June 2000, U.S. and British warplanes entered Iraq's airspace on military missions 21,600 times.
According to UN casualty figures and reports in the June 16, 2000 Washington Post, these U.S./UK "sorties" dropped bombs or missiles inside Iraq on an average of once every three days. During this 18-month span, 300 Iraqis were killed and more than 800 injured. At least 200 of the victims were civilians -- averaging one civilian death every other day.
In July 1999, the U.S. Central Command claimed that U.S. planes had destroyed a missile battery near Abu Sukhayr and a military communications site near Al Khidr. But that wasn't all the planes hit. The U.S. pilots also killed 17 Kurdish civilians along a highway near Najaf. (Ironically, this occurred in a "no-fly zone" supposedly created to "protect" the Kurds.)
In 1999, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, undertook an independent investigation of civilian casualties. He concluded that air attacks that year had killed 144 people and left 446 injured. The Clinton administration rewarded von Sponeck's efforts by attempting to have him fired. Von Sponeck resigned in disgust in February 2000.
In 2000, Iraqi civilians were killed in 24 different air attacks. In 2001, U.S. bombers attacked Iraq on 31 different occasions. As of Sept. 9, 2002, Allied aircraft had struck Iraq 37 times, including eight days in August.
Despite nearly four years of punishing attacks, Saddam Hussein has neither threatened to use nor used any weapons of mass destruction.
Bush Escalates the Bombing
According to U.S. Bombing Watch, in the 20 months from March 2000 to October 2001, 235 Iraqi civilians died in U.S. bombing attacks.
On June 8, 2002, some 100 U.S. and UK aircraft attacked Iraq's major western air defense installation -- the largest military air operation against Iraq since the December 1999 bombing. Nine U.S. F-15 Strike Eagles and three RAF Tornado GR4 ground attack fighters flying out of Kuwait dropped precision-guided bombs designed to take out Iraqi radar defenses in what one British defense correspondent characterized as "a prelude" to a U.S. Special Forces helicopter raid.
The British press reported that this marked "the first time that a target in western Iraq had been attacked during the patrols of the southern no-fly zone." Previous attacks had been focused on air defense sites in the south, near Basra, Amara, Nassairya and Baghdad. Some 26 civilians were reported killed in the June 8 raids.
On Aug. 25, U.S. and British warplanes again struck Iraq, killing eight Iraqi civilians and wounding nine more. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark visited the survivors of the attack in a Basra hospital accompanied by a team of international investigators and a film crew from the People's Video Network. Clark's visit was unreported in the U.S. media. In a debate with Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. David Lapan, Clark called the U.S./UK-imposed "no-fly zones" illegal and immoral and characterized the continued U.S. air attacks on the Iraqis as a "criminal campaign."
Gar Smith, former editor of Earth Island Journal, is now Roving Editor at The-Edge, a weekly electronic magazine of "News from the Brink."