British, U.S. lied about justification for pre-war Iraq airstrikes

By Michael Smith

Special to RAW STORY. Michael Smith writes for the London Sunday Times. He broke the Downing Street Memo story.

Britain and America’s reasons for stepping up bombing of Iraq in the ten months leading up to the war in Iraq was a sham, official figures released by the British Ministry of Defense show.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Geoff Hoon, his UK counterpart, said the stepped-up attacks by U.S. and Royal Air Force aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were a response to increased attacks by Iraqi air defences.

The minutes of a meeting of Tony Blair’s Iraq war cabinet on July 23, 2003, leaked to the London Sunday Times, record Hoon as saying “the US had begun spikes of activity to put pressure on the regime.”

UK ministers have since insisted that the stepped up attacks, which began in May 2002, were a direct result of Iraqi attempts to shoot down allied aircraft and were not, as Hoon suggested, an attempt to provoke a response that would give the allies an excuse for war.

But figures released last month by the British Ministry of Defense show that in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, with American officials predicting moves to oust Saddam Hussein, Iraq dramatically scaled back its attacks on allied aircraft.

During the first seven months of 2001 the allies recorded 370 “provocations” by the Iraqi military against allied aircraft. But in the seven months between October 2001 and May 2002 when the allies stepped up their attacks, there were just 32. The complete figures are available here, on the parliament's website.

The number of recorded threats dropped markedly in October 2001, the first full month after the Sept. 11 attacks, from 24 in September to just eight in October.

With U.S. officials openly predicting that an attack on Afghanistan would be followed by an invasion of Iraq, the number of recorded threats kept dropping.

By February 2002, there were just two, in March none and in April again two. Such was the reduction in the number of Iraqi threats that in the six months leading up to the “spikes of activity” British aircraft did not at any point need to respond in self-defence.

In May, after Rumsfeld ordered the allied attacks be stepped up, the Iraqi responses rose to 20, leading to yet further allied attacks.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, who obtained the British data using written parliamentary questions, said it reinforced the need for an inquiry into the conduct of ministers in the run-up to the war.

“Taken together with the leaked minutes of the July 23rd meeting, these figures simply destroy the Government’s case,” he said. “None of the inquiries have ever properly focused on the conduct of ministers. It is high time that we had an inquiry which did.”

The stepped-up attacks on Iraq’s air defences are now widely seen by military analysts as the start of the air war, exposing both Blair and President George W Bush to allegations that they acted illegally.

The “spikes of activity” began just weeks after Blair and Bush agreed to use military action to bring about regime change in Iraq, something that at the time was illegal under British interpretation of international law.

A Cabinet Office briefing paper for the July 23 meeting, which was also leaked to the Sunday Times, stated that at a summit with Bush in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, Blair said “the UK would support military action to bring about regime change.”

Lord Goldsmith, Attorney-General, did not advise that military action against Iraq was legal until Mar. 7, 2003, ten months after the allies stepped up their attacks on the Iraqi air defences.

Congress, which under the US constitution has to give its backing before the President can order military action, did not do so until October 2002. The war officially began Mar. 21, 2003.