Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Raid signal unspoken war against Iraq

BONN: The bombing we forget it must have some reason like passengers taking the suburban commuter train, the pilots climb into their cockpits for another routine sortie. On an almost daily basis they are up in the skies, checking their radars, plugging in their computer guidance systems, and following their pre-assigned course.

But -- and here is the rub -- this is not a training exercise. When they reach a certain point in their flights, they trigger their missiles and fire. British planes have been conducting their longest bombing campaign since the second world war, and yet almost no one even thinks about it. Largely, no doubt, because most people do not know about it.

The target is Iraq, which has few friends in this country, and that also explains the lack of public interest in the missile attacks which Britain and the United States have been running since late December. Compared to the bombing of Baghdad last autumn, which caused a loud if brief outcry, the current bombing is confined to the north and south of the country. It takes place in the "no-fly zones" which were established after the Gulf war in order to protect the Kurdish minorities in the north and the Shi'ites of the southern marshes. Saddam Hussein was told that any planes he sent into the area would be attacked as would troops he used for hostile missions.

But what has suddenly required British and American planes so dramatically to step up their operations? It is not that Saddam Hussein is mounting any special new threats in the north or south. He does not like the no-fly zones but he has broadly accepted them. Unlike his challenge to the United Nations inspectors when they tried to monitor his chemical and biological weapons programs, his tactics against the no-fly zones have been sporadic and oblique. An occasional radar operator would lock onto a British or American aircraft. An Iraqi plane would flit into a prohibited zone for a few seconds. The military analysts call it "cheat and retreat". So the rationale for the new bombing campaign has to be found elsewhere. It does not lie in any perceived Whitehall need to show the British public this government is being tough. The bombing has been kept out of the news as much as possible. If an American aircraft had not -- apparently mistakenly -- hit a command center which controls one of the pipelines which takes Iraqi oil to Turkey, the bombing would have carried on unnoticed.

The campaign seems to have more to do with the chaos in the United Nations Security Council over what to do about Iraq, as well as with the British and American governments' frustration. After the loud opposition to the bombing of Baghdad they may not want Saddam to think he has got away with it. Perhaps they are also signaling to backsliders like France that Britain and the United States still believe in containment. Eight years after the Gulf war, Iraq has been trying to argue that it has outlived the punishment it took for its invasion of Kuwait. It claims the sanctions regime, the no-fly zones, and the bans on investment cannot be justified for eternity. At some point they need to be reduced or lifted altogether. Britain says there is no need to change them, though no one can pretend they have had much effect on the regime, as opposed to the people of Iraq.

Last autumn the bombing of Baghdad forced the government to explain its case to a doubting nation. Now Downing Street should say why serial bombing in the no-fly zones is worth the money we spend, and why British pilots need to take their daily risks.

-- Guardian News Service