Iraq: Easier to Occupy From the Air?
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Many Iraqis believe the dramatic escalation in U.S. military use of air power is a sign of defeat for the occupation forces on the ground.
U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft dropped five times as many bombs in Iraq during the first six months of this year as over the first half of 2006, according to official information.
They dropped 437 bombs and missiles in Iraq in the first half of 2007, compared to 86 in the first half of 2006. This is also three times more than in the second half of 2006, according to Air Force data.
The Air Force has also been expanding its air bases in Iraq and adding entire squadrons. It is now preparing to use a new robotic fighter known as the Reaper. The Reaper is a hunter-killer drone that can be operated by remote control from thousands of miles away.
"We find it strange that the big strategists of the U.S. military have actually failed in finding solutions on the ground and are now back to air raids that kill more civilians than militants," former Iraqi army brigadier-general Ahmed Issa told IPS.
"On the other hand, they are giving away the land to local forces that they know are incapable of facing the militants, who will grab the first chance of U.S. withdrawal to bases to hit back and hold the ground again."
"Going back to air raids is an alarming sign of defeat," Salim Rahman, an Iraqi political analyst from Baghdad told IPS. "To bombard an area only means that it is in the hands of the enemy."
"Our area is under threat of air raids all the time," Mahmmod Taha from the Arab Jboor area southwest of Baghdad told IPS. "Each time they bombed our area, civilians were killed by the dozens, and civilians' houses were destroyed. They could not fight the resistance face to face, and so they take revenge from the air."
May 2007 was the most violent month for U.S. forces in Iraq in nearly three years, according to the U.S. Department of Defence.
There were 6,039 attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces, 1,348 roadside bombs detonated under their vehicles, 286 "complex ambushes" involving roadside bombs and coordinated teams of attackers were carried out, 102 car bombs exploded, 126 U.S. soldiers were killed and 652 were wounded.
The U.S. forces have been hitting back at predominantly Sunni areas such as those around Fallujah. But the forces have also targeted Shia pilgrims around Najaf in the south.
"Air raids are back even in Shia areas like Sadr City in Baghdad and many southern cities like Diwaniya, Samawa, and Kut where the al-Mehdi militia (of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) controls the ground," Abbas Abdul-Mehdi from Diwaniya told IPS while on a visit to Baghdad. "Their bombs fall on our heads, while the militiamen know how to hide and escape."
The U.S. forces are looking to do more of all this. "There are times when the Army wishes we had more jets," F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Steve Williams, commander of the 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron told reporters.
"What the U.S. forces are doing now is increasing their air force potential in a last attempt to crush the fighters with the minimum casualties possible," retired Iraqi Army colonel Mustafa Abbood from Baghdad told IPS. "It is a desperate attempt to make Iraqis turn against their fellow-fighters. It failed in Fallujah, and I do not see how it will work elsewhere."
Iraqis around Baghdad say they have noticed more air traffic in recent months. "There is a notable increase in the number of airplanes flying in the Iraqi skies," Amjad Fadhil, a farmer from Latifiya, south of Baghdad, told IPS. "F-16s and helicopters are roaring like monsters everywhere." There are more than 100 U.S. aircraft crisscrossing Iraqi air space at any one time.
Air Force engineers are working long hours to upgrade Balad air base, just north of Baghdad, which already supports 10,000 air operations per week. One of the two 11,000-foot runways has been reinforced to withstand five to seven years more of hard use.
Ten-year-old Salli Hussein lost both her legs when her home was bombed by a U.S. jet fighter near the Abu Ghraib area of Baghdad in November 2006. Her 11-year-old brother, Akram, and cousin Tabarak were torn to pieces in that missile attack.
"I want to have legs again so that I can play with my friends and make Mama happy," she told this IPS correspondent.
Ali Al-Fadhily, IPS' correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, IPS' U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region