The February Bombing of Iraq and the Bush Jr Administration

18 July 2005

  Phyllis Bennis

The February Bombing of Iraq and the Bush Jr Administration
Frequently Asked Questions
Phyllis Bennis
IPS, February 2001

Did the February 16 airstrikes near Baghdad represent an escalation of the military component of US-Iraq policy?

Yes. The strikes were the first outside the "no-fly-zone" in more than two years, and they were conducted by more planes than the regular two-to-three-times-a-week bombing raids of the last several years. Perhaps more significantly, they were accompanied by a much higher-profile public campaign, unlike the semi-secret (from Americans) nature of the bombing raids that have gone on since December 1998.
However, attacking outside the "no-fly-zone" border is neither more nor less illegal than attacking inside the zone. That is because the "no-fly-zones" themselves are illegal, without United Nations legitimacy or legality. Unilateral US, or bilateral US-UK bombing of Iraq violates international law, the UN resolutions on Iraq, and the UN Charter. So the February airstrikes did not represent a legal escalation; ALL the airstrikes were already illegal.

What was the international response to the airstrikes?

Opposition to the airstrikes was virtually universal, excepting only Israel (though not loudly) and Kuwait (at least one Kuwaiti official claimed Kuwait "neither condoned nor condemned" the strikes). In the region, every important US ally, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Turkey stated some level of opposition. Arab regimes other than Egypt largely muted their criticism, in deference to their strategic and military dependence on the US, but were compelled to at least state their opposition to avert growing pressure from the Arab populations, whose opposition was pervasive, angry and often quite violent. Among Washington's NATO allies, opposition was close to unanimous as well, with even the British parliament questioning the airstrikes. France deemed the strikes illegal, with Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine asserting they had "no basis in international law". Even Germany was cautiously critical. Other European countries criticized the action too, and both the European Parliament and the General Affairs Council of the European Union were scheduled to take up the issue on 26 February. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson went out of his way to tell the Moscow press that NATO "had nothing to do with" the airstrikes, and was not involved in the ongoing operation. Russia condemned the strikes as "counter-productive". Announcements came quickly from London's foreign ministry that the US and the UK had agreed "to rethink policy towards Iraq" in anticipation of the 17-18 February summit between Bush and Tony Blair at Camp David. And British Defense Minister Dame Symons felt compelled to defend the strikes as "justified in international law as a legitimate response to prevent a grave humanitarian crisis".

Were these airstrikes strikes legal? What about the "no-fly-zones" themselves?

No. There is no UN resolution authorizing the creation of "no-fly-zones" inside Iraq, let alone allowing the unilateral or bilateral military enforcement of such zones. (There is a general demilitarized zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border, but it is very narrow, and does not match the vast territory of the US-declared southern zone. The UN resolution creating it also does not call for military enforcement of it by the US or anyone else, only monitoring by the UN's own UNIKOM peacekeeping mission.) The Northern zone was established by the US, UK and France shortly after the war ended in 1991. It was not authorized by the UN, but was justified as necessary to protect the Operation Provide Comfort aid convoys being sent to assist the Kurds fleeing Iraq into Turkey. The Southern zone was established in 1992, in an area parallel to the border demilitarized zone - but it was not established or authorized by the UN as part of the border demarcation project. The US claimed it would protect the Shi'a population of southern Iraq. France pulled out of participation in the Southern zone in 1996, and out of the North in 1998, leaving the US and UK as sole participants in, and sole defenders of, the no-fly-zones. However, State Department Human Rights Reports admitted from 1994 that the "no-fly-zone" does not protect the Northern population from artillery, and from 1996 that in both Northern and Southern zones, the "no-fly-zones" do not protect Iraqi civilians from threat of ground troops or other attack - the kind of military attack most likely for Baghdad to use to put down any nascent uprising. In the Northern zone in particular, the "no-fly" aspect is limited; besides US-UK bombing runs, the Turkish air force, as well as Turkish ground troops, have been given free rein by the Pentagon to invade northern Iraqi territory and air space. Iraqi Kurds have been wounded and killed by Turkish planes flying in pursuit of Turkish Kurds seeking shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan, all under the permissive eye of the US and UK planes. The usual justification for US policymakers for both creating and enforcing the "no-fly-zones" is UN Security Resolution 688 of April 1991, which condemns Iraq's repression of civilians, particularly the Kurds, and demands that Iraq end this repression. But nothing in that resolution calls for or permits the creation or military enforcement of flight-exclusion zones. It requests the UN secretary-general to pursue further efforts and report back to the Council, and also "requests the Secretary-General to ... address urgently the critical needs of the refugees and displaced Iraqi population; (6) Appeals to all Member States and to all humanitarian organizations to contribute to these humanitarian relief efforts". It is Article 6 that the US seems to rely on to justify its airstrikes - apparently defining the bombing raids as a "contribution to humanitarian relief efforts". Unilateral airstrikes and bombings do not, however, qualify as "humanitarian relief". And Resolution 688 was specifically not taken under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the only circumstance in which a UN resolution may authorize the use of force.
There are two additional problems. First, the language of the resolution asks States to "contribute to the humanitarian relief" work identified in the resolution - meaning efforts to meet the needs of the "refugees and displaced" of April 1991 - primarily the Kurdish refugees seeking shelter in Turkey. Clearly bombing civilians, economic targets, and dozens of sheep and goats in 2001 (aside from whatever military targets may be hit) does nothing to help whatever refugees or displaced remain from that refugee crisis of a decade before. Second, Resolution 688 concludes that the Security Council itself "decides to remain seized of the matter". In UN diplo-speak, that means authority remains within Council; any individual state would be obligated to return to the Council to authorize any response beyond the provision of humanitarian aid.

What were the goals of the Bush administration in carrying out the airstrikes?

President Bush was at least partly accurate when he called the airstrikes "routine". While this set of strikes did represent a quantitative military escalation, they were not qualitatively different from the now-regular post-Desert Fox airstrikes that have averaged two or three times per week. But his dismissive "routine" remark seemed aimed primarily at a domestic audience, for whom it was a macho assertion of presidential power. The Bush administration came into office committed to being "tougher" on Iraq than Clinton; the high-profile posturing regarding the February 16 airstrikes was clearly part of that effort. The media spin also served to whip up and renew the demonization of Iraq as a continuing military threat. The claim was in fact somewhat undermined by Colin Powell's acknowledgment at his confirmation hearing that Iraq does not pose a conventional military threat to, and cannot invade, its neighbors, but the overall impact still was to ratchet up both generalized popular anti-Iraq sentiment, and the credentials of the new administration's commitment to "containing Saddam Hussein". It is certainly possible that the airstrikes, and particularly the high-visibility campaign surrounding them, were designed shore up the Bush administration's credentials as "tough enough" militarily on Iraq, to get away with considering some easing of economic sanctions. The last four to six weeks have seen a qualitative escalation in the pace of the sanctions' erosion internationally, and the Bush administration is eager to reverse that trend - or at least to appear to be doing so. The Bush-Blair summit discussed a new sanctions regime, ostensibly one which would focus on arms control and which would to some degree "ease" or "soften" (but presumably not LIFT) economic controls on civilian goods, and almost certainly not end the diversion of Iraq's oil revenues to the UN-run escrow account. No specific announcement was made following the summit; it is likely both London and Washington are waiting for Colin Powell's return from the region to assess Arab reaction before making any decision.

Were the strikes planned deliberately to correspond to Powell's Middle East visit?

The strikes - and especially the high-visibility campaign that accompanied them - seem to have been aimed primarily at a US domestic audience, designed to show the new administration's commitment to being "tough" on Iraq. In the region, the chronological proximity of his trip to the airstrikes actually made his debut diplomatic shuttle as secretary of state more difficult. (It's also possible that at least part of the timing decision for these strikes was linked to Kuwait's high-profile 10-year anniversary celebration of liberation from Iraqi occupation. The bombing thus helped deny US critics the claim that the new administration is not being tough enough on Iraq.) Powell seemed genuinely taken aback by the level of Arab opposition to the strikes. This may reflect his lack of experience in the region with anyone other than his former military counterparts; none of the Arab governments or military hierarchies are known for taking public opinion into account. But the depth of the Arab street's outrage about the bombing, heightened especially in the context of Sharon's election in Israel and escalating Israeli repression of the Palestinians, is at an unprecedented level. Regional governments have little choice but to at least appear to be taking public opinion into account in their dealings with US officials. Powell is not himself a Middle East expert, and he may well have accepted Washington's old Desert Storm-era claim that no "linkage" existed between the Israel-Palestine conflict and broader US policy in the region
Powell, like the rest of Bush's petro-administration, also seems to place a high priority on consolidating US relations with the Arab regimes, particularly in the oil Gulf region. That goal pushes him towards an apparently softened sanctions regime in Iraq in hopes of placating pro-US Arab regimes. It will be on the basis of such a "warm and fuzzy" sanctions regime that Powell will pursue his domestically-driven goal of winning Arab support for continued "containment" of the Iraqi leadership.

What were the military and/or civilian consequences of the bombing?

The Pentagon now agrees that most of the bombs used, the latest generation of "smart bombs", missed their targets. Bush claimed the mission was still a success, since the goal was to "send a message" to Saddam Hussein and to "degrade" (once again) Iraq's military capacity. So even if the bombs missed their targets and the equipment is quickly rebuilt, Bush will claim it as a success since the goal was not really military. It must be noted that the 28 new Raytheon-produced bombs used in the February 16 raid, the "Joint Stand-Off Weapon" known as J-SOW, are actually cluster bombs. Each 1000 pound bomb carries 145 bomblets, both anti-armor and anti-personnel, which disperse over a football field-size area. Pentagon sources say 26 of the 28 bombs missed their target. Cluster-bombs, once on the ground, become landmines, rendering the entire area lethal. The alleged target was a new fibre-optic cable system being installed. The US claimed, but provided no evidence, that it was designed to link and increase the power of Iraqi anti-aircraft radar stations, and was being built by China. China implied it was not involved at the governmental level, but left open whether a Chinese company may be working on the project, and claims to be investigating. There is no clear evidence that the cable system was in fact designed for military use at all. Three earlier contracts (involving European companies) for installing a fibre-optic cable system for civilian tele-communications use were submitted by Iraq to the UN's 661 sanctions committee; all three were rejected by the committee. Civilian casualties are not certain. Iraq indicated there were two civilians killed, and 20+ wounded. For background, UN officials documented 144 civilians killed by US-UK bombing in the "no-fly-zones" in 1999 alone.

Who supports the airstrikes?

The strikes have little public or strategic support. Defense hawks (Anthony Cordesman, Richard Perle and others) support them and it is likely their congressional counterparts do as well. It is unclear whether Bush's new appointees actually support the strikes or not; Powell and Cheney's internal positions are unknown, although Powell's post-airstrikes remarks during his Middle East shuttle would indicate he was not a supporter. The US military hierarchy is divided at best, with widespread opposition to the strikes within the Air Force. One of the Air Force commanders of the Southern "no-fly-zone" laughed when asked about the "self-defense" claims of then-President Clinton's administration in enforcing the zones. And many Air Force cadets and Air Force Academy faculty spoke openly (September 1999) of their view that the airstrikes and the no-fly-zones in general were militarily useless, and placed an unnecessary burden on the pilots and support crews. The US cost for the Southern zone alone, was $1.4 billion for the fiscal year that ended September 2000.

What was the Iraqi response?

In the official media, there was a high-level of angry denunciation of the US and Israel, and repeated claims of Iraqi victory by virtue of surviving ten years of bombing and sanctions. At the popular level, there was some indication that many people largely shrugged off the February bombings as one more in a long oppressive series; most civilians are impacted much more by the economic sanctions. There were, however, some Iraqis who spoke specifically to their view that the bombing provides further proof that the US does indeed want to kill Iraqis, in contrast to US claims that its fight is only with the Iraqi regime. And some Iraqis identified the cluster bomb-character of the new bombs to strengthen their point regarding the targeting of civilians. Diplomatically, the strikes came only days before a long-planned meeting between top-level Iraqi officials and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York, designed to reopen UN-Iraq discussions on all aspects of the relationship. Before the talks began, Foreign Minister Saeed al-Sahaf indicated that Iraq would not allow UN arms inspectors back into Iraq whether sanctions were lifted or not. But it seems clear that was designed for public and domestic purposes; Annan's spokesman indicated that the mood in the talks was much more open than such remarks would indicate. The Iraqis had asked Annan to specifically condemn the bombing raids; he did not, although he did indicate that it made his diplomatic effort much more difficult.

What is the link between the airstrikes and economic sanctions?

It is likely that the recent strikes are part of a campaign aimed at convincing the American people that the Bush administration really is tough, even as it prepares to adjust the economic sanctions in some way. Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's sudden reversal to a "lift the economic sanctions" and increase disarmament efforts, may reflect a kind of trial balloon for the new administration. Taken into account along with last month's New York Times editorial, which did not go quite as far as Friedman but still reversed earlier unequivocal support for sanctions, and even stronger anti-sanctions editorials in the Chicago Tribune and other US papers along with the increased international isolation of the US (among Washington's Arab and NATO allies in particular) because of its support for sanctions, the likelihood of some sort of shift out of the current failed policy seems imminent. The Bush administration's long-standing oil ties, as well as the new primacy on strengthening ties with the Arab regimes, all lead to the necessity of major spin control on the impact of sanctions. Equally, the free-traders in the administration, particularly Dick Cheney, are accountable to corporate constituencies eager to exploit Iraq's oil and not be undercut by their European, Russian, Asian and other counterparts. During the Clinton years Cheney led the corporate opposition to anti-Iran sanctions, and moving to repeat that effort in Iraq is a natural progression.
The difficult part will be to sort through the spin for the reality, to determine whether economic sanctions are REALLY being lifted (unlikely), or whether simply a new kinder, gentler description of the same old civilian-killing sanctions regime is being set in place.


About the authors

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of both TNI and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC where she directs IPS's New Internationalism Project. Phyllis specialises in U.S. foreign policy issues, particularly involving the Middle East and United Nations. She worked as a journalist at the UN for ten years and currently serves as a special adviser to several top-level UN officials on Middle East issues, as well as playing an active role in the U.S. and global peace and Palestinian rights movements. A frequent contributor to U.S. and global media, Phyllis is also the author of numerous articles and books, particularly on Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, the UN, and U.S.