500 air strikes and more than 100 dead in our hidden war in the Gulf

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The Independent Online
IT IS a hidden war. At least 500 Anglo-American air strikes against Iraq this year. More than a hundred dead. Well over a thousand sorties. And yet scarcely a headline. Perhaps we have become immune to Nato bombing in Yugoslavia.

Allied jets bombed Iraq again over the past fortnight. Eight dead on 29 July, nine dead the following day, according to the Iraqis.

And yet each British or United States raid produces little more than a paragraph in the Western press. There is no political debate in Washington, no question in the House of Commons. Bombing Iraq has become routine, an "acceptable" war.

In the first five weeks of this year there were 70 air strikes against Iraq, inflicting more damage than the pre-Christmas Desert Fox bombings. And when the Americans and British received new rules of engagement - to attack Iraqi military installations even if they were not directly threatening the Royal Air Force or the US Air Force - the bombings went on unchallenged. Yet eight months later, President Saddam Hussein's vicious regime appears to be as impregnable as ever.

There is no doubting the facts of the air strikes. On 1 February, US and British aircraft attacked an Iraqi missile site and two "communications sites" at Al-Amarah and Talil.

On 1 March, American jets - in one of the heaviest raids on Iraq in two months - dropped more than 30 laser-guided bombs of 2,000lb and 5,000lb on "communication sites, radio relay sites and anti-aircraft artillery sites" near Mosul "in response to radar threats".

Iraqi oil pipelines were bombed, provoking condemnation from Benon Sevan, the United Nations' "oil-for-food" programme director in Baghdad.

Three days later, Iraq claimed that bombs had been dropped on a farm near Basra. By 14 March, allied spokesmen were reporting "an unspecified number of bombs" dropped on "Iraqi radar posing a threat to coalition aircraft".

While Nato was bombing Yugoslavia, Iraq experienced a brief lull in bombing.

By 5 April - at the height of the bombardment on Yugoslavia - the raids on Iraq had recommenced.

A Pentagon spokesman announced that an American F-16CG aircraft, a US Navy F/A-18 Hornet and an RAF Tornado had attacked surface-to-air missiles sites 110 miles south of Baghdad, while other aircraft had bombed "communication sites" near al-Salman and Nukayeb. Less than two weeks later, Iraq said two people were killed when aircraft bombed surface-to-air sites south of Baghdad.

The Anglo-American offensive has infuriated both the Russians and the French - again with little reporting or public reaction.

The French were deeply troubled when an American AGM-130 missile exploded in a Basra housing complex in February, killing 17 people and wounding almost 100, according to the United Nations. Six women and 10 children were among the dead.

A Pentagon spokesman said - in words that would become familiar during the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia two months later - that "we are not targeting civilians".

Even on 4 February, when the Americans claimed that British and US aircraft had destroyed 40 missile batteries, not a single dissenting voice was heard in Congress or the House of Commons.

On 8 May, Iraq said that three people had been killed when 18 bombs were dropped on Iraqi "civilian and military [sic] targets". On 12 May, Iraq said 12 people had been killed in civilian areas of Mosul after US and British aircraft had fired air-to-ground missiles at farmers' tents around the ancient city of Nineveh.

By the end of the month, the Americans were recording attacks on "Iraqi air defences near Mosul".

Aware that President Saddam was an even more brutal man than the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, it was inevitable that the US government would use the same mantra to excuse civilian casualties in Iraq as it had in Yugoslavia, where all "collateral damage" was blamed upon Mr Milosevic.

Sure enough, on 19 July, James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said that "every effort is taken to avoid any casualties to civilians... Ultimate responsibility for these events [sic], however, lies with Saddam Hussein".

The Americans have meanwhile resorted to the usual economy with the truth - as have the Iraqis. According to Rear Admiral Craig Quigley on 5 August, only 108 attacks had been made against Iraqi targets this year. Lieutenant General Shaheen Yassin, the commander of Iraqi anti-aircraft defences, said that US and British aircraft had carried out 10,977 sorties.

The catch, of course, is that each raid recorded by Admiral Quigley could constitute at least a dozen separate air strikes. And "sorties" includes transport, refuelling and surveillance aircraft on a single mission. Figures calculated for the past eight months suggest that British and American aircraft have individually undertaken more than 500 bombing missions against Iraq.

It is also worth recalling that two prominent British defence magazines - Aircraft Illustrated and Jets - concluded that even the Desert Fox bombardment of last December had no effect on President Saddam's hold on power. Aircraft Illustrated said that 25 per cent of the attacks missed their targets and that "all but one of the weapons of mass destruction (the supposed target of coalition jets) escaped severe damage" in an operation which "achieved little more than face-saving."

So what are we doing bombing Iraq?