British and American warplanes are attacking Iraq’s air defences almost daily, and making practice runs on other targets. US special forces are reported to be on the ground in western and northern Iraq, and military engineers are preparing and upgrading airfields in the Kurdish zone. In many ways, the war on Iraq has already begun.
This war is a good deal more secret than the very public preparations being made by the US and its allies for an invasion of Iraq. No attempt has been made to conceal the build-up of forces in the region, with the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group in the Gulf and four more groups en route or preparing to sail. Enough equipment for an armoured division is already in Kuwait, and more is on the high seas.
In Kuwait, 2,200 Marines are conducting a month-long amphibious exercise called Eager Mace ’02. When General Tommy Franks, who would command any assault, arrives in the Gulf next month with 600 of his staff for a “command and control” exercise, it would not be surprising if they were outnumbered by accompanying press and TV crews.
All this helps to maintain the pressure on Saddam Hussein’s regime. As the United Nations deploys inspectors to find and eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it stresses that any “material breach” of the Security Council resolution that sent them there will trigger full-scale war. But it would take many weeks, and far more reinforcements, to mount an invasion, and what is happening out of the public eye is important.
Last summer, the rules of engagement for coalition aircraft patrolling Iraq’s “no-fly” zones were quietly changed. The first hint of this was a raid in early September by more than 100 British and American warplanes. The biggest attack in nearly a year, it was aimed at blinding the main air command and control centre in western Iraq – essential, said military analysts, if the regime’s Scuds were to be pushed out of range of Israel. Before, coalition aircraft hit back only at missile or artillery batteries that opened fire on them, or loosed AGM-88 anti-radiation missiles at radar units “locking on” to them.
The Iraqis were reported to have deployed new types of mobile missile launchers, and to be hiding them near civilian areas. So British and American aircrews were ordered to hit air defence command bunkers and the fixed communications that link them to missile and gun positions. The dry announcements by General Franks’s US Central Command of each engagement merely speak of attacks “in response to recent hostile actions”, and carry a routine assurance that “coalition aircraft never target civilian populations and infrastructure and go to painstaking lengths to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian facilities”. But when the communiqués are strung together, the intent becomes clear: to destroy Iraq’s air defences piece by piece.
This is proving more difficult than expected, because Iraq has a fibre-optic communications network deep underground. Several centres have been hit repeatedly by what CentCom calls “precision-guided weapons”, probably JDAM “smart bombs”, aimed through global positioning satellites, to keep them out of action.
In September and October, there were more air raids on Iraq than in all of the previous eight months. Since Iraq accepted the UN resolution on 14 November, US and British planes have gone into action on 10 days out of 11. The coalition’s technological superiority is such that there is little danger of aircraft being shot down.
Given the volume of British and American attacks, and the risk to Iraq that any hit on a coalition warplane could give Washington an excuse to start a war, some analysts have questioned whether every raid is a response to hostile action by Baghdad. “It appears the rules of engagement have been broadened to the point that anything related to a future air campaign can be taken out,” said one. Preparations for such a campaign have not stopped there: US press reports say pilots from the Abraham Lincoln are staging practice “strike missions” over Iraq, acquainting themselves with targets they may be called on to attack. While officially unacknowledged, such activity is scarcely covert. But the Pentagon has gone out of its way to deny reports of what US and British special forces might be doing inside Iraq.
Claims that special forces are scouting western Iraq for Scud missile launchers, so their threat to Israel can be eliminated quickly when hostilities begin, were described as implausible by one expert. “Saddam is not going to have his Scuds in the open. For one thing, that would be a material breach of the UN resolutions,” he said. “They will stay well hidden, almost certainly underground, until he intends to use them. You don’t want to have special forces undertaking a long, risky and probably fruitless search for them when war could still be months away.
“In the north, it is different. I have no doubt that in the Kurdish area, where they can operate freely, special forces are preparing themselves and their equipment and training local fighters to assist them. The forces were critical to the success of the Afghanistan campaign, especially in designating targets for air attack.”
The tempo of war preparations was crucial, the expert added. “How do you continue to maintain the pressure on Iraq? By continuing the build-up, but not so that you have large numbers of troops waiting for months. That applies as much to the special forces as to any other kind of force. You get the equipment in position, but leave most of the troops behind.”
But the covert nature of much of the preparations means that war could come sooner than many think.