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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Dallas Morning News October 04, 2004

U.S. opts for risky tactic in Iraq

As airstrikes grow, who will win hearts and minds?

By Richard Whittle

WASHINGTON - U.S. forces battling insurgents and foreign terrorists in Fallujah, Samarra and Baghdad have increased their use of airstrikes over the last month - a dicey tactic in such a war.

"It's risky because it doesn't look good, because it looks like we're making war on the Iraqi people," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan defense policy Web site.

Most of the strikes - the latest were Monday - have been aimed at alleged terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian ally of al-Qaeda believed to have beheaded Western hostages on videotape.

Mr. al-Zarqawi and his followers are said to be holed up in Fallujah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold that the Marines assaulted then withdrew from last spring after a month-long siege, turning over the job of regaining control of the city to a special Iraqi brigade that failed in its mission.Other strikes last week and late Monday targeted Shiite insurgents in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.

Opponents of the U.S. presence in Iraq contend that the strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, including women and children.

"In almost all of these attacks, civilians die," said John Sloboda, a British psychology professor who is executive director of the pacifist Oxford Research Group and co-director of iraqbodycount.net, a Web site that tries to track civilian deaths in Iraq. "In most cases, the media reports that come out quote either eyewitnesses or hospital doctors who say that among the bodies taken to the hospital or morgue are women and children."

Military officials dispute such accounts, which are impossible to verify, and say they take elaborate steps to avoid killing civilians.

"When we make a strike, it is a precision strike based on our intelligence in coordination with the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces," Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

He declined to discuss how targeters can verify that the houses targeted are the right ones or that those inside aren't innocent but said, "We plan the strikes through analysis of the most up-to-date intelligence we have available, on the ground and overhead."

The strikes are carried out with precision-guided bombs and missiles that find their targets by Global Positioning System satellite signals, laser beams, infrared seekers and television cameras.

Targeters plan the strikes using various means to minimize the risk of unintentional damage.

They size the weapon to the target, generally choosing from among 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs, or missiles with warheads as small as 40 pounds.

They fuse the bomb to explode underground so as to contain the blast to the target.

They aim the bomb at an angle that directs the blast away from nearby buildings, using a mathematical model to calculate what targeters call the "bug splat" - the pattern of destruction that the explosive creates according to its trajectory and momentum.

"We make every single effort to contain the explosion to the exact amount of effect we want to have," Maj. Antonelli said. "We don't want to cause collateral damage, and we don't want to cause civilian casualties."

But he noted that, "If they're hiding munitions in that area, we cannot control the secondary explosions."

And even precision-guided bombs go astray.

In a Pentagon briefing prior to the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, a senior U.S. Central Command official who spoke on condition of anonymity said a 500-pound laser- or satellite-guided bomb is expected to hit within "21 or 22 feet" of where it is aimed.

"I think it's fair to say that ... somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of even our precision weapons do not hit within that 21-foot circle" because of electrical or mechanical failures, the official said.

Maj. Antonelli acknowledged that civilians may have died or been hurt in the airstrikes along with insurgents and terrorists, whom military officials call "AIF," for "anti-Iraq forces."

"We can't discriminate the difference between civilian deaths and AIF casualties a lot of times because they're not in uniform," Maj. Antonelli said. "Zarqawi and other terrorists have a history of operating close to civilians, and if there are civilians that die, they use it as propaganda."

That's no small risk in a counter-insurgency campaign, said former British army Col. Christopher Langton, a top analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

In such wars, the contending forces are battling for the "hearts and minds" of the people rather than territory, he said, and nothing is more important than keeping the people on your side.

"If you kill five militants with one bomb, you've probably alienated 10 times that number with the same bomb," Mr. Langton said. "This is an insurgency, and the territory is the mind of the population."

In Northern Ireland, where he served three tours and commanded a regiment during the anti-British insurgency, soldiers learned that "you must portray that you are sharing the risk with the population," he said.

Relying on airstrikes instead of ground troops in one city, he said, may sow contempt among Iraqis elsewhere as well, who may think: "Here is the most powerful army in the world, and yet they have to send a fighter jet, taking all the risks of killing innocent civilians."

Other analysts said the risk is necessary to go after the terrorists without severe urban ground combat that could cost many U.S. troops their lives - and cause as many or more civilian casualties.

"When you pursue bombing in urban areas, there's always the risk of civilian casualties," noted Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, whose district includes Fort Hood. But with the interim Iraqi government trying to hold elections in January, "I don't think we can allow insurgents and terrorists to have control of major population areas."

Assaulting them on the ground, he added, "would just be very difficult for American troops, until we have weakened them with some surgical bombing."

Maj. Antonelli said the Marine ground troops were still "operating in and around Fallujah. We are not sitting on the sidelines." But "we're not acting by ourselves," he added. "We're acting because the [Iraqi] government is requesting these strikes to rid the area of insurgents."

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said U.S. commanders in Iraq clearly realize the risks and have calculated that the tactic is their best choice.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Mr. Cordesman said. "It's a series of trade-offs and uncertainties, and that's the definition of every operation that you could conduct in Iraq."

Copyright 2004, The Dallas Morning News