Iraq: A Brief History of Bombing

Faced with the prospect of the imminent disintegration of the Iraqi state, the installation of  of a jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, an all-out sectarian civil war, and the final collapse of US policy in Iraq, the Obama administration is reaching once again into that trusty tool of US foreign policy: air strikes.

Since World War II, bombing has been the weapon of choice for successive governments in all the wars America has fought.  It’s a weapon that has been used against Iraq – and also in support of Iraq – on numerous occasions,  and with very different political and military objectives.    And with Iraq’s cities once again appearing in the Imperium’s bomb sights, its worth looking back at some of these precedents, and the policy twists and turns that made them possible.

  • 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.  The Iraqi air force carries out air strikes against Iranian military and civilian targets, using chemical weapons, nerve gas, sarin and mustard, whose precursors are supplied by a range of governments and corporations, including American companies. Following the US tilt towards Iraq in 1983.84, US intelligence agencies provide the Iraqi Air Force with satellite imagery to faciliate the bombing of Iranian troops with poison gas.  – in breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of such weapons.   Subsequently released CIA documents published by Foreign Policy magazine observe that the use of nerve agents ‘could have a significant impact on Iran’s human wave tactics, forcing Iran to give up that strategy.’
  • May 1987:  Iraq accidentally sinks the US frigate Stark.  In response the US allows Kuwaiti ships to fly under the US flag, in order to justify attacks on Iranian ships in the Gulf.  CIA spy planes and helicopters also conduct secret bombing raids against Iranian military bases.    By early 1988, according to author Barry Lando: ‘ officers from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency dispatched to Baghdad were actually planning day-by-day strategic bombing strikes for the Iraqi Air Force.
  • Spring 1988:  Iraq uses sarin and mustard gas in the course of four offensives against Iranian troops in the Fao Peninsula near Basra, using satellite imagery and other intelligence information supplied by the United States.   Casualties estimated by the CIA in the hundreds or thousands, and thwart Iranian offensive against Basra, thus turning the war in Iraq’s favour. .
  • March 16, 1988: Iraq bombs the Kurdish village of Halabja with sarin. VX and mustard gas, killing between 3, 200 -5,000 people.  Both the Reagan and Thatcher administrations blame the atrocity on Iran, in order to continue political and military support for Saddam Hussein.  That same year the Bush administration blocks congressional attempts to impose sanctions on Iraq in response to further gas attacks on Kurdish villages.
  • January 16 1991:  Following Saddam Hussein’s refusal to withdraw from Kuwait, allied planes initiate Operation Desert Storm with multiple air strikes against Iraq and Kuwait.  In 42 days, Coalition planes drop 88,000 tons of bombs in the most sustained and relentless bombing campaign in military history.  Targets include Ba’ath party headquarters and military bases, telephone and radio exchanges, food processing, storage and distribution facilities, animal vaccination facilities, power stations and water treatment pumps, railroads and bus depots, as well as  oil wells and pumps, pipelines, refineries, storage tanks, and water treatment plants and irrigation pumps.
  • In March 1991, a UN report on the humanitarian situation in IRaq finds  that the conflict has ‘ wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic structure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous.  Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age.’
  •  1991-2003: US, British and French planes fly more than 200,00 sorties over Iraq in enforcement of no-fly zone, carrying out numerous air strikes in order to protect the Kurds and ‘contain’ Saddam Hussein.
  • December 1998:  American and British jets carry out Operation Desert Fox – four-day bombing campaign of Iraqi weapons research and development installations, air defense systems, weapon and supply depots, and the barracks and command headquarters of Republican Guard, and presidential palaces.  Ostensible purpose of these raids to ‘degrade’ Iraqi WMD in response to alleged non-compliance with UN weapons inspectors.  Critics allege that their real objective is to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s government and distract political attention from ongoing impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton.
  • June 2002-March 2003.  ‘Secret’ escalation in Anglo-American bombings coincides with attempts to justify invasion on the basis of Saddam’s non-compliance with weapons inspectors.  600 bombs dropped on 391 Iraqi targets before the war begins.
  •  19 March 2003, the US-led coalition planes and missiles conduct 29, 200 air strikes in Iraq in the opening salvo of a war that according to George Bush,  is intended ‘to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.’  An estimated 3, 750 Iraqi civilians are killed and injured by air-launched or ground-launched cluster munitions on Iraqi cities, in addition to some 9, 200 combatant casualties.
  • 2003-2011.  US carries out 3, 900 air strikes against Iraqi insurgents.  The 2006 ‘Lancet report’ claims that 78,133 people have been killed in these strikes, many of which are carried out in densely-populated urban neighborhoods.
  • 4 April 2004:   American units headed by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force subject the city of Fallujah to an aerial and ground assault involving seven hundred airstrikes, attacks from  AC-130 Specter helicopter gunships equipped with Gatling guns capable of firing 1, 800 rounds per minute.  600 civilians are killed before the operation is called off without bringing Fallujah under American control.
  •  8 November 2004: US forces subject Fallujah to a second bombardment,  followed by  a ground assault by US Marines, with British and Iraqi forces in support, in which insurgent fighters are shot or blown up in houses, mosques and on the street, and burned to death with white phosphorus in ‘shake and bake’ bombings.    In December the New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm describes Fallujah as ‘ a desolate world of skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines, and several palm trees.’   
  • March 2013.  On tenth anniversary of Iraq invasion, doctors in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities report alarming rise in cancer and birth defects, which scientists attribute to the use of depleted uranium and other chemicals used in the course of US aerial and artillery bombardments.   
  • June 14 2014:  Following ISIS advances in central and northern Iraq, the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush is moved to the Persian Gulf, accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and guided-missile destroyer in preparation for possible American air strikes on Iraq.   According to a Pentagon spokeman, these deployments are intended to ‘ to support our longstanding commitments to the security and stability of the region.’

Syria: The Red-Liners Are Back

Hardly has the blood dried on the streets of Cairo, than the ‘international community’ that barely issued a murmur of protest is once again in a paroxysm of horrified indignation at the evils of the Assad regime in Syria.   The occasion is the alleged sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which is now said to have killed 1,800 people, and which the Syrian rebels and their international backers have blamed on Assad’s forces.

That a horrific crime has occurred in Ghouta appears to be indisputable, but its scale and its origins have yet to be determined.  From a purely cui bono perspective, it  beggars belief that the Syrian security forces would have carried out an attack like this, less than 72 hours after the arrival of the UN chemical weapons inspection team.

In the last few months  the regime has inflicted a series of reverses on the rebels and driven their forces from key positions,  with the conventional weapons at its disposal.  Politically, the rebels themselves are in disarray, and the Western interventionists and their Gulf allies have to some extent been placed in check, if not checkmated, by the situation on the ground, by their lack of options, and by their own divisions regarding which rebel groups they are able to support and how they are to support them.

In these circumstances, it makes no sense whatsoever for Assad to take such a provocative step that risks losing all the momentum his regime has gained.   It is difficult to see what the regime could possibly gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack in his own capital, at precisely the moment when a UN chemical weapons inspection team is on the scene.

Some commentators have suggested that such an ‘own goal’  might be an expression of the regime’s ‘irrationality’, but this pseudo-explanation has more to do with psychobabble than politics, of the kind that was once directed at Saddam Hussein to justify the ‘preemptive’ elimination of weapons that he did not have.

The Syrian security forces clearly know who their enemies are, both at home and abroad, and they are undoubtedly aware that a sarin gas attack at this or any other stage of the civil war could only bring about entirely negative repercussions and risk reversing all the gains that they have made, by bringing about a storm of condemnation and a new legitimacy and unity to the ‘red liners’ who have called for military action.

The rebels and their backers know this too,  and from their perspective a major  atrocity at such an opportune moment is very useful indeed – and could in fact be considered something of  a last card, considering their receding options.   If so, this savage gambit has been extremely successful, because the US, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all responded exactly as expected, with the usual back-up from their dutiful employee Ban Ki-moon.

Once again there is talk of arming the rebels with advanced weapons, air strikes and no fly zones in order to save ‘innocent lives’.    These calls have been echoed in a resumption of the ‘what can we do’ media chorus that was conspicuously absent during last week’s massacres in Egypt.

France, which has clearly developed a taste for militarism since Libya,  has been the most gung-ho in calling for the use of ‘force’ against the regime in response to the Ghouta atrocity.  The Obama administration has publicly been more restrained, and insisted that more evidence is necessary before it considers its response.

This caution is clearly due to divisions within the US policy establishment, since the dominant assumption, in the US as elsewhere, is that Assad was responsible, and the possibility that it might have been a false flag attack is not even being discussed.  No one will be surprised that the imperial minion William Hague has insisted that the Assad regime is responsible, and described the possibility that the attack was perpetrated by the opposition as ‘vanishingly small’.

Horror, disgust and condemnation are certainly justified in response to what has clearly been an awful crime – even if Hague’s kneejerk response smacks of the same kind of manipulation and deceit that has already accompanied previous unresolved chemical incidents.    There have been calls for the UN inspection team to widen its mandate and investigate the attack.  Such an inspection may not prove anything except that an attack has taken place.

Even if the inspectors were to find traces of sarin or whatever gas was used, it wouldn’t necessarily be able to determine its origin in the midst of a war zone.  In addition not all members of  UN weapons inspection teams are objective and dispassionate observers, and the Western states that support such inspections tend to hear what they want to hear and ignore what they don’t.

The experience of Iraq has shown that weapons inspections are often instrumentalised by Western states to lock target countries into sanctions regimes and trigger military action.    Similar intentions undoubtedly underpin the ‘red lines’ that have been imposed in Syria, but nevertheless the Syrian government may have to agree to an inspection and would in fact do well to allow one, if it wants to back up its own insistence that it was not responsible.