Iraq Crisis: Hardware of war chills the desert breeze

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The Independent Online
THE CONCRETE bunkers of the Ali al-Salem air base in Kuwait loom up from the flat desert landscape like plastic building bricks on a carpet. It takes a moment or two to realise that, despite their 20ft thick walls, each has been cracked open, their heavy doors twisted or blown off, by laser-guided bombs exactly like the ones being mounted on the wings of the RAF Tornadoes parked outside. Suddenly the threat of military conflict with Iraq, only 33 miles away, seems a lot less unreal.

A week ago the eight Tornado fighter-bombers, their crews, equipment and support personnel were still in Europe. But as the diplomatic options narrow and the military build-up in the Gulf increases, the RAF finds itself using military facilities which the allies attacked seven years ago to deny them to Saddam Hussein's invading forces. The sand around the bunkers is still littered with lumps of concrete and metal from that war.

The coalition against Iraq is much smaller this time, and the goal of using armed force - unconditional inspection of Baghdad's weapons facilities - immeasurably harder to achieve. In all probability the Ali al-Salem base, last used by the RAF in 1961, would not have been pressed into service if alternatives in Saudi Arabia, a safer distance from Iraq, had been available. Kuwaiti civilians and nomadic Bedouns have been advised to move out of the area.

The danger of handing President Saddam a propaganda coup if large numbers of Iraqi civilians are killed in air attacks was not far from the minds of Air Commodore Peter Harris, the most senior RAF officer in the Gulf region, or of the visiting Lord Gilbert, the defence procurement minister. In using terms such as "minimum collateral damage" and "precision bombing", they recalled the exaggerated claims of 1991, but Air Commodore Harris insisted: "Our targets and tactics would be selected to keep civilian casualties hopefully to zero. We have the skill to pinpoint our attacks."

Behind him, sleek 1,000lb bombs were being loaded in a chill desert breeze.

Lord Gilbert, the latest of a succession of British and American officials to swing through the Gulf rallying support, said the weaponry that might be used this time was "even more accurate than seven years ago". To questions about the strength of the coalition against President Saddam, he replied that it was "growing all the time, almost by the hour". British lives would be at risk, he added, "which is exactly why we would prefer a diplomatic solution".

The operational aircrews were kept away from the press, but the visit was a diversion of sorts for the ground crews, deprived of alcohol and anxious for news of the ructions at Chelsea football club. "It's just like bloody Norfolk - flat and noisy," said one engineer as a Tornado ripped overhead.

Any questions about the dangers they faced were greeted with similar jocularity, but last time the Tornadoes suffered proportionately higher losses than any other type of aircraft, having been used in low-level attacks on airfields. Their role, though almost certainly not their tactics, would be similar this time, deploying 1,000lb and 2,000lb Paveway III laser-guided bombs.

An older officer looking on was more reflective than his juniors. "When I first went into the RAF, none of the people of my present age had any medals, and they were proud of it," he said.

"That's how effective we were in keeping the peace. Now I have three campaign medals and a decoration, plus some foreign ones I'm not allowed to wear, and it's the same for the rest of my generation. The world has got more dangerous."