Thursday, February 22, 2007

The secret and not-so-secret air war against Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion

John Prados looks at a new aspect of A War Conspiracy Documented 02/21/07. Prados explains why he sees a "smoking gun" in the correlation in the pre-invasion months between secret air war plans presented to the President in 2002-3and the actual air war in Iraq:
A January 31, 2003 meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly shows the two leaders discussing ways to provoke Saddam Hussein so as to justify war, indicating premeditation. Last week the National Security Archive in Washington posted the U. S. war plan - the set of briefing slides used by Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Tommy Franks to brief President Bush on "Polo Step," CENTCOM’s Iraq invasion scheme. The PowerPoint slides were prepared for a series of presidential meetings held from December 2001 to August 2002. The slides summarized CENTCOM’s buildup and maneuver concepts for Bush’s deliberations. Bush backed Franks’ concept of “adjusting” Iraqi defenses by executing what amounted to a covert offensive air campaign. They would use forces already in the Persian Gulf region for the ostensible purpose of enforcing no-fly zones created after the first Gulf War. has previously covered this operation (“The War Before the War ,” June 24, 2005), but the new evidence establishes an explicit link between the aerial offensive and the Iraq war plans.
The air war in Iraq has been severely underreported. And that was the case long before 2002. After the end of the Gulf War, the US and Britain established "free-fly" zones in Iraq, zones always of questionable status in international law. As Prados explains, there was one in northern Iraq to protect humanitarian assistance going to the Kurds. Though in practice it led to a considerable amount of autonomy for the Kurds, creating a much stronger basis for them to see further autonomy or independence. And there was a free-fly zone in the south to deter repressive measures against the Shi'a - though the US had allowed Saddam's regime to send helicopters against Shi'a rebels in the south immediately after Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait in 1991. The rebels had wrongly assumed they had American support based on public encouragement from Old Man Bush and from American broadcasts. into Iraq. This left the Iraqi Shi'a intensely suspicious of American intentions and promises in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Essentially, the US bombed Iraq off-and-on from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 until today, actually. Prados writes of the pre-2003 bombing:

Until 2001, it had been standard practice for U.S. and British aircraft participating in these missions to retaliate against Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, missiles, and radars that had fired at the planes. CENTCOM had a plan it called "Desert Badger" that established standard operating procedures for such strikes.
Gen. Tommy Franks developed a set of revised procedures for the bombing of Iraq in early 2002, part of a plan called Polo Step that included the plans for invasion. The National Security Archive of George Washington University (Top Secret Polo Step) has posted the declassified documents.

What Prados focuses on in his article is not simply the existence of war plans; it's not at all surprising that war plans would be available for Iraq and that they would be periodically updated, given the fact that the US and Britain (along with France until December 1998) were maintaining the "free-fly zones". Instead, he looks at the correlations between actions on the ground and the evolution of the war plan and its discussion at senior levels of the government.

The pre-2002 air campaign against Iraq is critically important background. The national press tended to treat repeated bombings of Iraq in those days as routine items, when it covered them at all. But some of those actions were substantial. presents a
detailed order of battle for one series of air attacks called Operation Desert Fox (1998-99). Whoever came up with the code name apparently wasn't bothered by the fact that German Field Erwin Rommel had been widely known as "the Desert Fox". summarizes:

There are currently [12/23/1998] over 34,500 military personnel in the area, including 2,600 soldiers, 20,300 sailors and Marines [of whom about 2,500 are ashore and the rest afloat], and joint headquarters and other joint units comprised of 1,000 people. The Air Force total, which was some 7,500 last week, increased by about 70 aircraft and 2,500 Air Combat Command personnel, reflecting deployments in mid-December. Forces in the region include land and carrier-based aircraft, surface warships, a Marine expeditionary unit, a Patriot missile battalion, a mechanized battalion task force, and a mix of special operations forces deployed in support of US Central Command operations. To enhance force protection throughout the region, additional military security personnel are also deployed. Currently, there appear to be slighly over 250 aircraft in the area, which total includes air to air, air to ground, dual role, support, and attack helicopters. The cruise missile force is twice the pre-December 1998 level and can be augmented significantly within days. (my emphasis)
The occasion for Operation Desert Fox was Saddam Hussein's decision to block access for UN weapons inspectors. Scott Ritter was a lead inspector on the UN team at the time and has given numerous accounts of those events. The official Iraqi justification for blocking their access was that the US was using it for espionage against the rules of the inspection. Ritter and the US government itself has since confirmed that it was indeed the case. As a matter of historical fact, the frequently-repeated assertion that in 1998 Iraq "kicked out the inspectors" is not true. The Iraqi government did block access. Chief UN inspector Richard Butler decided to pull out the team after the Clinton administration recommended they leave prior to the Desert Fox aerial bombardment. Ritter himself said at the time:

I think that it's inevitable that there will be military action tonight. [12/16/1998] ..Iraq failed to live up to its obligations and the US feels that it's time to strike...I'm dead set against this military strike. I think Iraq must be held accountable but I think a military strike even of a three-day nature, a massive strike that will inflict grievous harm on Iraq, will not solve the disarmament issue, will only make innocent Iraqi people suffer more and in the end will backfire and allow Saddam Hussein to generate international support and eventually he'll get sanctions lifted and keep the weapons. This is a bad idea, it's a bad time and I don't think we should do this at this point in time.
The core of the action was four days of intensive bombing. George Robertson, British Secretary of State for Defence, described the operation on 12/19/1998 after the third night of the operation:

Targets that were attacked by the RAF [Royal Air Force] aircraft last night included Republican Guard headquarters which are the lynchpin of Saddam's regime. ... If the Republican Guard ceases to support Saddam his brutal regime is under immediate threat. We want the Republican Guard to know that the cosy life that they have led under Saddam is under attack and we think they have got that message very clearly.

Last night, we also struck at key elements of Saddam's air defence system and at tank facilities. Air defence is a key element of Saddam Hussein's war machine and his tank force is a substantial element of his ability to conduct offensive military operations against his neighbours. Other coalition [US and Britain] targets overnight have included command-and-control facilities which allow Saddam to use his chemical and biological weapons. So far in this campaign coalition aircraft have flown several hundred manned-aircraft sorties including over 100 bombing raids, some 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired and around 100 air-launched cruise missiles have been used.

Coalition forces have attacked about 100 separate, precise military targets; some of these sites are very large military complexes which have required a significant number of attacks, others are single buildings which house key facilities. Around a third of these sites are related to Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, another third of the targets were part of Iraq's air defence system, either missile sites or command facilities; 20 targets are related to the overall control of Saddam's military machine and the balance are Republican Guard or other military sites such as airfields. We are still assessing the full impact of the damage we have inflicted and we hope to have a better picture later in the day. However, it is already clear that we have inflicted substantial damage on Saddam's chemical and biological war machine and set back his ambitions to threaten his neighbours. (my emphasis)
This series of attacks, involving as he himself said 100 bombing raids and 400 cruise missile strikes against around100 targets, Robertson describes as a "precise, limited operation."

A later evaluation examines the Desert Fox operation:
Operation DESERT FOX: Effectiveness With Unintended Effects by Mark Conversino of the Air War College Air & Space Power Journal 07/13/05. He writes of the results of the 4-day bombardment, which he describes as "major armed confrontation" between the US/Britain and Iraq:

In the end, DESERT FOX was a militarily effective use of airpower. Terminating the already very brief operation short of a change in either Iraqi behavior or leadership, and limiting targets to a relative handful, however, was a political decision. Yet the lure of achieving a bloodless yet devastating military victory while making a rapid exit possible, if necessary - what Eliot Cohen called "gratification without commitment" - ultimately, perhaps inevitably, led to the misapplication and abuse of airpower. Many airpower theorists had long cautioned against using airpower in penny-packets or in hyper-constrained political environments. "When presidents use it," Cohen wrote, "they should either hurl it with devastating lethality against a few targets (say, a full-scale meeting of an enemy war cabinet or senior-level military staff) or extensively enough to cause sharp and lasting pain to a military and a society." The 70-hour operation became what Cohen cautioned against: an attack on Saddam with a "sprinkling" of air strikes that would merely "harden him without hurting him and deprive the United States of an intangible strategic asset", an asset that Cohen called the post-Gulf War "mystique of American airpower."

Perhaps a longer, more punishing air campaign would have upended the regime. It is unclear, however, why anyone could imagine that such a brief air campaign had the slightest potential of driving from power a ruthless tyrant - and notorious "survivor" -like Saddam Hussein. In fact, post-OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] interviews conducted by the ISG [Iraq Survey Group] with high-ranking members of Saddam’s fallen regime revealed that the Iraqis were "satisfied" with the results of DESERT FOX. "They said, given a choice of sanctions with inspections or sanctions without inspections, they would prefer without." Likewise, the 2004 ISG report stated that in 2003 Saddam discounted the threat of an American-led invasion and considered the air attacks associated with DESERT FOX as the "worst he could expect from Western military pressure." This is hardly the attitude of a leader who was confronting the possible collapse of his regime in December 1998 in the wake of those air attacks. It seems clear that both American and British leaders considered the regime’s fall a possible result of this air campaign, though they apparently did not intend to sustain the attack in a manner sufficient to bring about that collapse. That they also were not prepared to either exploit or contain the results of a potential airpower-induced regime implosion revealed political short-sightedness. (my emphasis)
I've included some of that history as a framework for understanding the way in which the Cheney-Bush administration could make the aereal strikes that Prados describes in 2002-3 prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq without attracting a great deal of attention or debate. Although the two paragraphs just quoted emphasize the insufficiency of Operation Desert Fox to bring down Saddam's regime, it was clear a signficant set of military strikes. Congress, the press and the public had come to view even a "major armed confrontation" with Iraq like Operation Desert Fox as a routine occurrence that demanded no particular attention.

In 2002, the name for the enforcement of the free-fly zone in southern Iraq was changed from Operation Southern Watch to
Operation Southern Focus. As Prados explains:

Southern Watch air attacks resumed in May 2002, coincident with one of the Polo Step briefings, following a six-month period in which there had been virtually no air action. In August, when Franks presented near-final versions of his war plan, Rumsfeld changed the rules of engagement for the air forces and Southern Watchbecame Southern Focus. Suddenly, in early September, there followed a four-day series of sustained strikes hitting Iraqi military communications, headquarters, anti-ship missile and air defense communications facilities, all considered key targets in "adjusting" Saddam’s defenses. Two-thirds of more than 21,000 attack sorties, or flights counted by single aircraft, that took place before the invasion occurred in the Southern Focus timeframe beginning in August.

The September strikes corresponded to the White level that General Franks described in May and August slides. That was described as an air operation of five to seven days’ duration involving about 1,000 flights by coalition aircraft. This effort was supposed to have been triggered by the shootdown of a U.S. aircraft, an Iraqi link to a terrorist act, or confirmed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) within Iraq. After that strikes concentrated overwhelmingly upon shaping the battlefield rather than their supposed purpose of countering interference with the no-fly zones. In January 2003, it was reported that there had been almost two attacks on higher echelon Iraqi military targets for every one aimed at air defense or radar sites.

We know from history that Saddam’s air defenses never did destroy an aircraft in the no-fly zones—not even a Predator drone. Nor were there Iraqi terrorist attacks or prewar confirmations of WMDs. Saddam refused to supply the provocation that Bush wanted. Not to be put off, Bush simply dispensed with the triggers and moved ahead on his aerial offensive. When, at the height of the 2004 electoral season, President Bush told reporters that before the war his administration had been dealing only with Desert Badger [the procedures for attacking targets in enforcement of the free-fly zones], he was being disingenuous. This decoupling of the air attacks from any relation to actual Iraqi activity is the smoking gun that makes plain Bush's aggressive intent. (my emphasis)
Because the press commentary rarely explains the significance of some things, Prados' use of the word "aggressive" in that last sentence implies an illegal action. It certainly provides another piece of the picture showing that the Cheney-Bush administration and their loyal servant Tony Blair intended to go to war against Iraq well before the new weapons inspections began that were calledto a halt when the invasion was launched.

Bush has been known to say on more than one occasion that Iraq refused to let those inspectors in prior to the invasion, which is simply not true. The UN inspectors were doing their work and were asking for more time to search for evidence of the (non-existent) WMDs.

In the following interview, we see Rummy in An interview is available by court historian Bob Woodward with Rummy, with Rummy ducking questions about the sort of air war plans developed prior to the March 2003 invasion (
censored transcript of 10/23/03 interview at

What Rummy refers to as "Desert Badger Plus and a Desert Badger Plus Plus" is apparently the evolving set of plans released as Polo Step which Prados discusses.

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