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The Christian Science Monitor June 30, 2005

Secret air campaign against Iraq?

Downing Street memo, other documents may show war really started earlier than March 2003.

By Tom Regan

Most American media have focused on the allegations from the Downing Street memo that the Bush administration was going to "fix" the intelligence in order to justify the war against Iraq. Now the reporter who broke the original story says they have missed a more substantial allegation to arise from the same set of leaked documents.

Michael Smith, defense writer for the Sunday Times of London wrote this past Sunday that "The American general who commanded allied air forces during the Iraq war appears to have admitted in a briefing to American and British officers that coalition aircraft waged a secret air war against Iraq from the middle of 2002, nine months before the invasion began." (This bombing capaign is referred to in the Downing Street memo.)

Addressing a briefing on lessons learned from the Iraq war Lieutenant-General Michael Moseley said that in 2002 and early 2003 allied aircraft flew 21,736 sorties, dropping more than 600 bombs on 391 "carefully selected targets" before the war officially started. The nine months of allied raids "laid the foundations" for the allied victory, Moseley said. They ensured that allied forces did not have to start the war with a protracted bombardment of Iraqi positions.

If those raids exceeded the need to maintain security in the no-fly zones of southern and northern Iraq, they would leave President George W. Bush and Tony Blair vulnerable to allegations that they had acted illegally.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times last week on how he received the series of documents from two sources in the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Smith (who originally strongly supported the war in Iraq) wrote that at first he did not consider the now famous "Downing Street Memo" the most important of the documents he received. Instead, he felt it was a separate briefing paper which showed that the Blair government would support military action, but they had to find way to do that legally.

The Downing Street plan, according to the leaked briefing paper, was to use the United Nations to trap Saddam Hussein into giving them a reason to attack. The US and the British would do this by prodding "the UN Security Council to give the Iraqi leader an ultimatum to let in the weapons inspectors." It was hoped that Hussein would find this unacceptable, giving them a "legal justification for war."

But if that didn't work, the US was already working on "Plan B," and the information on that was in the Downing Street memo.

It quotes British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon as saying that "the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime." This we now realize was Plan B [and apparently confirmed by Gen. Moseley's comments mentioned above]. Put simply, US aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.
The number of bombs dropped on Iraq in March and April of 2002 was almost zero. But from May to August, that increased to 10 tons a month.
But these initial "spikes of activity" didn't have the desired effect. The Iraqis didn't retaliate. They didn't provide the excuse Bush and Blair needed. So at the end of August, the allies dramatically intensified the bombing into what was effectively the initial air war. The number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq by allied aircraft shot up to 54.6 tons in September alone, with the increased rates continuing into 2003.

In other words, Bush and Blair began their war not in March 2003, as everyone believed, but at the end of August 2002, six weeks before Congress approved military action against Iraq.

And in another story on June 19th for the Times, Smith reported that another of the leaked documents, a paper on British Foreign Office legal advice, showed that the increased bombing campaign was "illegal" under international law, despite US claims to the contrary.
" ... the leaked Foreign Office legal advice, which was also appended to the Cabinet Office briefing paper for the July [2002] meeting [where the contents of the Downing Street memo wer recorded], made it clear allied aircraft were legally entitled to patrol the no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq only to deter attacks by Saddam’s forces on the Kurdish and Shia populations.

The allies had no power to use military force to put pressure of any kind on the regime.

Smith also writes that since Congress did not authorize military action against Iraq until Oct. 11, 2002, "the revelations indicate Bush may also have acted illegally."

In an interview with RawStory.com (an alternative news source that covers stories under-reported by the mainstream media), John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a military defense analysis group, said his organization had raised questions about the increase in bombing in August of 2002. "The group saw the strikes as a means by which the US could degrade Iraqi defensive capabilities, and as a precursor to a declared war."

"It was no big secret at the time," [said Mr. Pike]. "It was apparent to us at the time that they were doing it and why they were doing it, and that was part of the reason why we were convinced that a decision to go to war had already been made, because the war had already started." Pike says the allied forces used their position in the 'No-Fly- Zone' to engage in pre-emptive action long before war was formally declared.

"They, I think, had decided to take advantage of Southern Watch and Northern Watch to go ahead and take the air defense system apart and attack any other targets that they felt needed to be preemptively destroyed," Pike asserted. "They explicitly altered the rules of engagement, because initially the rules of engagement had been that they would shoot back if [someone] shot at them. Then they said that if they were shot at, they would shoot at whatever they wanted to."

The conservative commentary blog, RedState.org, however, offers another explanation for the increased bombing – that the US and Britain were trying to force Hussein into complying with coalition requests for him to readmit weapons inspectors. And besides, the site argues, "what if Blair and Bush were trying to goad Hussein into putting a noose around his neck?"
Do you consider that, perhaps, Bush and Blair had determined that Hussein needed to go, once and for all? Perhaps they had good reason to believe that this leopard was not going to change his spots, and wasn't going to stop menacing the neighborhood. Then, maybe Blair and Bush looked around, saw the irresoluteness of the UN, saw the military weakness and political spinelessness of the other major nations on Earth (the nations of "Old Europe", for instance), and determined that, if someone is going to have to fight Hussein – that someone is US! Best fight him now, as opposed to fighting him a few years from now, after UN sanctions have collapsed and he's had a chance to upgun.
The Wall Street Journal reports on how the blogosphere has kept the story of the Downing Street Memo alive despite efforts by Blair and Bush, who have not denied the authenticity of the original document, to put it to rest. On Thursday, Blair admitted that he has been "astonished" by the coverage that the memo had received in the US and Britain.

Finally, in an ironic footnote to the incident, RawStory.com reported that the number of bombs dropped on Iraq actually declined after the start of the war in March, 2003.

Copyright 2005, The Christian Science Monitor