Iraq has been ordered to destroy dozens of missiles which violate UN limits, but the US and Britain are not waiting to see whether Saddam Hussein complies.
In recent days, an Independent on Sunday investigation reveals, they have stepped up attacks on missile sites near Basra which could threaten the military build-up in Kuwait and the Gulf.
The raids are being carried out by aircraft patrolling the “no-fly” zones in northern and southern Iraq, established by the victors after the first Gulf war. They claim the patrols are being carried out in the name of the UN – especially ironic, given the passionate debate over the need for a second Security Council to authorise war on Iraq.
Some have always disputed whether the “no-fly” zones have UN authority, but now the US and Britain have widened the “rules of engagement” to the point where warplanes are effectively preparing the way for an imminent invasion.
Targets have included surface-to-air batteries as well as an anti-ship missile launcher which was considered a threat to the growing concentration of naval vessels in the Gulf. In the past two weeks there have been at least three strikes in the same area on Ababil-100 mobile missile batteries.
They are capable of rapidly firing four missiles a distance of nearly 90 miles, each with a single explosive warhead or up to 25 anti-tank “bomblets”. From Basra they could easily reach the ground forces building up in northern Kuwait, which has been declared a closed military zone.
Attacks on such battlefield weapons, rare until recently, are part of a semi-secret air campaign, conducted under cover of the no-fly patrols, which has intensified sharply since the beginning of the year. Allied aircraft have gone into action over Iraq almost every day. By the end of this month the number of missions is likely to overtake the 78 flown during the whole of 2002.
While the number of attacks and the targets are known, important information is almost always kept back, including the number and type of aircraft deployed, the weapons used and the success or otherwise of each attack: US Central Command communiques routinely say “battle damage assessment is ongoing”, and further details are never released. The Iraqis ritually say civilians have been killed; equally ritually, this is denied. What is certain, however, is that no allied aircraft has been shot down in more than a decade of patrols.
Significantly, the air attacks have been heavily concentrated in the south of Iraq, with only one having been reported north of Baghdad since the beginning of the year.
Millions of leaflets have also been dropped in the south, some warning Iraqis not to repair bomb damage, others giving the frequencies of anti-regime broadcasting stations.
The US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, proclaimed last week that there were sufficient forces in the Gulf region for war to be launched at any time. At the weekend, the Pentagon claimed that it had some 200,000 troops in the region, roughly half of them in Kuwait.
Within days there will be five US carrier battle groups in and around the Gulf, as well as the Ark Royal and its task force. The number of strike aircraft, including a third of the Royal Air Force’s strength, is climbing to about 500. They will be able to unleash devastating power against Saddam when ordered to do so, but already Iraq’s air defences have been significantly eroded by months of military action.
Mr Rumsfeld’s announcement took military chiefs by surprise, however. Delays in reaching agreement with Turkey have hampered the deployment of some significant elements in the US invasion plan. Britain’s Challenger 2 tanks and about half the 42,000 personnel in its combined force are still on the high seas.
Sharp rise in number and type of targets
Until last summer, coalition aircraft patrolling the “no-fly” zones over Iraq 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. But with an invasion looming, the number and type of targets attacked have increased sharply.
* Last September, in a raid given unusual publicity, more than 100 British and US warplanes hit the main Iraqi air command and control centre in the west of the country, which would direct any Scud attacks on Israel.
* Air defence command bunkers along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers south of Baghdad, and the fixed communications that link them to missile and gun positions, have come in for repeated attack.
* Fibre-optic links get the most attention, since they are quickly repaired. The Iraqis are warned through leaflets that repair crews may be targeted.
* While continuing to dismantle Iraq’s air defences, coalition aircraft are increasingly attacking battlefield weapons in the far south of Iraq, the likely focus of an invasion. Fixed and mobile surface-to-air missile batteries have been targeted, as well as surface-to-surface missiles threatening US and British land and naval forces.