The US Has Been Bombing Iraq Since 1991 Without Stopping--Until Now

A top general told AlterNet that the U.S. military is preparing to end the longest air war in history.

In 1991, the United States unleashed a bombing campaign of staggering proportions against Iraq: 120,000 sorties were launched and 265,000 bombs dropped. From then on, the missions never stopped. 

From 1991 to 2003, the U.S. and its allies conducted a low-level air war to enforce no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, while attacking Iraq’s air defenses and other targets. In February 2003, the U.S. would, again, conduct a blistering “shock and awe” campaign and, by mid-April, Iraq had been subjected to 41,000 sorties and 27,000 bombs dropped. The U.S. air war would continue on as, year after year, U.S. planes attacked targets, killing enemy fighters and civilians alike.   


But at the end of this year, according to the top Air Force general in Iraq, two decades of American sorties and bombings -- the longest air war in the history of the world -- will finally come to end.    

In a telephone interview from Baghdad last week, Major General Russell Handy, the commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, announced there are currently no arrangements in place to allow the U.S. to fly missions over Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011. “We have no authority nor any agreements,” he said in regard to conducting operations in Iraqi airspace from the many U.S. military bases in the region. Nor, Handy said, was he aware of any ongoing negotiations about forging such an accord before the fast-approaching deadline to remove all U.S. troops from the country.

After months of attempts to derail that deadline, set forth in an agreement signed by George W. Bush late in his presidency, President Barack Obama recently found himself forced to abide by it, when the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to grant U.S. troops legal immunity from criminal prosecution after this year.

Beginning in 2012, according to Handy, the number of U.S. military personnel in the country could be down to between 100 and 200 troops. “I’m not going to give an exact number because it’s still being discussed and we’re still talking to the Iraqis about [it],” he said.

The remaining troops would mainly be servicemembers attached to the Office of Security Cooperation, which manages the sale of military weapons systems, vehicles and other technology to foreign governments. These would not be trainers in the traditional sense, like those U.S. troops currently working with Iraqi forces. Office of Security Cooperation personnel would instead help with basic instruction involving equipment. A scenario Handy offered dealt with advanced radar technology. An expert airman might oversee contractors who would install the equipment at an Iraqi base and teach personnel there how to operate it, but not much beyond that. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that all U.S. air capabilities in that country will vanish with the last of the troops. The U.S. mission in Baghdad, a $1 billion structure and the largest embassy in the world, will see to that.

“They certainly will need some sort of access to their sites whether that will be rotary-wing or fixed-wing,” he told me, referring to helicopters and airplanes to be used by American foreign service personnel. When I asked how many airfields the embassy staff would hold on to or retain access to, he said, “I can’t speak to that, because the embassy is still deliberating exactly what their plan will look like and what airfields they will need to operate from.” 

Even at this late date, the embassy and the Iraqi government are still haggling over the details, he told me. “I’m quite sure they haven’t come to a conclusion.”

Still, after 20 years of sorties by U.S. fighter jets, after eight years of wartime missions by U.S. bombers and attack aircraft since George W. Bush’s invasion, after a year of attempts by President Obama to push the two-decade-long campaign into 2012 and beyond, America’s air war in Iraq is reportedly coming to an end.

As he looked back on the war, Handy asserted “no one should believe the sacrifice [of U.S. troops in Iraq] was in vain” and  touted the “opportunity that the Iraqis now have,” by virtue of living in a democracy. What went unsaid is that Iraqis have only ever lived in a “democracy” in which a foreign military occupied their country. 

By Jan. 1, 2012, if Handy is to be believed, Iraqis will know a new kind of freedom, some for the first times in their lives. While the U.S. now maintains it has the right to conduct an unmanned airstrikes in any country (or at least any country in the global south) and currently does so in nations like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, a palpable shift may indeed still occur in Iraq. On that first morning after the final American withdrawal, Iraqis will wake up and be able to look to skies free of foreign bombs, rockets and machine guns for the first time in 20 years.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook