The unofficial war: U.S., Britain led massive secret bombing campaign before Iraq war was declared

Larisa Alexandrovna and John Byrne
June 27th, 2005

A U.S. general who commanded the U.S. allied air forces in Iraq has confirmed that the U.S. and Britain conducted a massive secret bombing campaign before the U.S. actually declared war on Iraq.

The quote, passed from RAW STORY to the London Sunday Times last week, raises troubling questions of whether President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged in an illegal war before seeking a UN resolution or congressional approval.

While the Downing Street documents collectively raise disturbing questions about how the Bush administration led the United States into Iraq, including allegations that “intelligence was being fixed,” other questions have emerged about when the US and British led allies actually began the Iraq war.

According to the May 1, 2005 Downing Street Memo, official minutes of a 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, members of British intelligence MI-6 and various senior level members of the Bush administration, air strikes had already begun by July 23, 2002.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.”

The Ides of May-June
Starting in late May to June of 2002 a flurry of activity began both in the United States and in the Middle East. In what appears to be an admission of covert activity, chief allied air force commander Lieutenant-General Michael Moseley divulged in a little-noticed quote in the New York Times that US/British aircraft flew 21,736 sorties between June 2002 and March 2003.

Moseley said that some 600 bombs were dropped before the official start of the war, targeting 391 locations and/or installations.

Moseley explained that the combination of air strikes and covert raids occurred in the southern no-fly zone regions covered by routine patrols.

The targets of these strikes are difficult to pinpoint, but RAW STORY has found a clear divergence between U.S. and Iraqi reports at the time, as well as disagreement over what provoked the strikes., a military defense group, raised concerns about the air strikes when they mushroomed in early 2002, though their worries produced few press reports.

The group saw the strikes as a means by which the U.S. could degrade Iraqi defensive capabilities, and as a precursor to a declared war.

“It was no big secret at the time,” director John Pike told RAW STORY. “It was apparent to us at the time that they were doing it and why they were doing it, and that was part of the reason why we were convinced that a decision to go to war had already been made, because the war had already started.”

Pike says the allied forces used their position in the ‘No-Fly- Zone’ to engage in pre-emptive action long before war was formally declared.

“They I think had decided to take advantage of Southern Watch and Northern Watch to go ahead and take the air defense system apart and attack any other targets that they felt needed to be preemptively destroyed,” Pike asserted.

“They explicitly altered the rules of engagement,” he added, “because initially the rules of engagement had been that they would shoot back if [someone] shot at them. Then they said that if they were shot at, they would shoot at whatever they wanted to.”

One U.S. Air Force vet told a hearing in Istanbul this weekend, “I saw bombing intensify. All the documents coming out now, the Downing Street memo and others, confirm what I had witnessed in Iraq. The war had already begun while our leaders were telling us that they were going to try all diplomatic options first.”

Iraq complained about the air raids to the UN Secretary-General May 27, 2002. Iraq’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Naji Sabri wrote:

On instructions from my Government, I have the honour to transmit to you herewith a letter dated 27 May 2002 from Mr. Naji Sabri, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Iraq. The Minister calls attention to the ongoing wanton aggression against Iraq by United States and British aircraft in the unlawful no-flight zones and to the fact that in the period from 16 April to 16 May 2002 they carried out 844 armed sorties, 52 of them from Saudi Arabia, 656 from Kuwait and 136 from Turkey, as shown in the statement enclosed with the letter. On 19 April and 1 May 2002, United States and British aircraft bombed civilian and military sites in Ninawa Governorate, killing one citizen and wounding five others and damaging a number of civilian and military installations.

The Minister reaffirms the Government of Iraq’s position that the United States of America and the United Kingdom must bear full international responsibility for these acts of aggression and terrorism, and he further states that Iraq reserves its right, as established by the Charter of the United Nations and international law, to defend itself against this ongoing hostile, terrorist activity. He expresses the hope that you will perform the duties assigned to you under the Charter, that you will urge the governments of the countries in question to halt forthwith their constant aggression against Iraq and that you will call upon the regional parties to desist from providing the necessary facilities.”

In another letter to the UN, Naji Sabri stated that on May 28, 2002,

“American and British aircraft dropped heat flares on crops of barley in the governorate of Ninawa, burning large areas of these crops: 1,630 dunums in the district of al-Hamdaniya and 400 dunums in the district of Hamam al Alil.

This new incident of burning crops illustrates the inhumanity and the immorality of the policy of these two States towards Iraq, which seeks to inflict maximum damage on the Iraqi people and target its source of domestically produced food after imposing comprehensive sanctions on Iraq. This policy constitutes an act of terrorism and a crime against humanity which the international community must not ignore.

The U.S. account differed. The U.S. European Command issued this statement about an attack the following day:

Iraqi forces threatened Operation Northern Watch (ONW) coalition aircraft today. Iraqi forces fired anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) from a site in the vicinity of Saddam Dam while ONW aircraft conducted routine enforcement of the Northern No-Fly Zone.

Coalition aircraft responded to the Iraqi attack by delivering precision ordnance on elements of the Iraqi integrated air defense system.

Coup De Main?
Michael Smith, the British reporter who broke the Downing Street leaks, revealed in the Daily Telegraph that on June 8, 2002 roughly 100 US/British crafts engaged Iraq's major western air defence installation. Smith adds that although “only 12 aircraft dropped precision-guided bombs on to the H3 airfield, 240 miles west of Baghdad and close to Jordan, many support aircraft took part.”

According to the report, Iraq made 130 attempts to shoot down coalition aircraft in 2002.

The public reasons given for at least some of these air strikes generally involved purported violations of the no-fly zone region in Southern Iraq or the disabling of air defense installations.

But the timing and intensity of the strikes suggest otherwise. As the U.S. quietly moved heavy armor to the region in early 2002, along with supplies of ammunition from Qatar in August of that year, the strikes mushroomed.

The number of days per month that allied planes attacked installations in Iraq leapt from six to nine between July and August of 2002, then skipped to thirteen from December to February of 2003.

Congress had approved the use of force pending the exhaustion of diplomatic options in October 2002, and UN inspectors returned in November, while an aggressive air campaign was in full swing.

When President Bush formally declared war on Iraq in March 2003, allied airstrikes in Iraq actually declined.