A pointless little war that no one is winning

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Britain is at war, and has been so without a break for almost 12 months. Not against Slobodan Milosevic, or the Serbs in Kosovo, but in a little reported air campaign against Iraq, in which - by Baghdad's claim - more than 200 civilians have been killed.

Britain is at war, and has been so without a break for almost 12 months. Not against Slobodan Milosevic, or the Serbs in Kosovo, but in a little reported air campaign against Iraq, in which - by Baghdad's claim - more than 200 civilians have been killed.

Officially, Operation Desert Fox, the last major Allied bombing onslaught against Iraq, triggered by Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with United Nations disarmament demands, lasted four days before ending on 19 December, 1998.

"We set out to diminish and degrade Saddam's military capacity and we have done so," Tony Blair claimed at the time. In truth though, the fighting has never stopped, with British and United States jets engaged in combat over Iraqi territory roughly once every three days. Yesterday alone, US F-14 and F-18 jets carried out what Baghdad said were 70 sorties over south Iraq, blasting radar and anti-aircraft emplacements.

Strictly speaking, the clashes arise from patrols by US and British warplanes of the "no-fly" areas imposed in the north and south of the country, to protect Iraqi Kurds and Shia Muslims respectively. As such they are separate from the debate over a new UN inspections regime, coupled with a possible lifting of sanctions, reaching a climax in New York this week.

But for the Iraqi leader these interdictions, north of the 36th parallel and south of the 32nd, have become a symbol of an illegal curtailment of national sovereignty, and continuing persecution of his country.

Firing missiles (and occasionally dispatching Iraqi planes) against what the Baghdad press calls "hostile crows", offers President Saddam a convenient way of keeping Iraq's humanitarian crisis in the headlines, and demonstrating that while the country is down, it is not out.

But the result has been mainly indifference. In America, the media pay little attention. In Britain, the regular action seen by the half dozen RAF Jaguars based in Incirlik in eastern Turkey and the 18 Tornados operating out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia goes unmentioned for weeks on end.

Every now and then, a newspaper runs a critical editorial, or a sceptical MP asks a question in the Commons. But otherwise the conflict is ignored, barring the odd incident like last summer, when a stray Allied bomb was alleged to have hit the reputed burial site of the evangelist Matthew, 20 miles from the city of Mosul, well north of the 36th parallel.

Similarly, despite the more than 200 civilians said by Baghdad to have been killed, the upsurge of sympathy in the Arab world on which Baghdad was counting has not materialised.

Thus the stalemate could continue for months. Retaliation against President Saddam's "provocations" costs Britain an estimated pounds 55m a year - irritating, but a relatively minor addition to the defence budget.

Last December, Mr Blair and President Clinton boasted of the damage they had done to Iraq's war machine. A year later, the strikes continue, to little visible military effect. President Saddam's grip on power seems as firm as ever. If anything, many experts conclude, the war has increased his support among ordinary Iraqis.

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