Blurry edges of a hard line on Iraq

Convinced Iraq is rebuilding military programs, the US is enforcing no-fly zones - but with disputed accuracy.

Six white pick-up trucks idle near the Saddam General Hospital here, each bearing a wooden coffin. In the back of the lead vehicle, a man tenderly rubs the fabric of an Iraqi flag draped over the coffin, and then wipes a tear from his eye.

Outside the hospital gates, hundreds of men, some in military or police uniforms, mill around, denouncing the US and its friends Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The coffins contain the remains of six civilians, workers at a veterinary clinic in the town of As-Salman, killed Jan. 20 in a US missile attack on an alleged antiaircraft radar site. Aid workers visiting a week ago saw no evidence of a radar installation.

The truth of what happened last weekend in Iraq's southwestern desert may never be known. But the contradictions surrounding this latest US airstrike are emblematic of the confrontation between the world's only superpower and Iraq, the nation with the second-largest known oil reserves.

How to deal with Iraq may be one of the most difficult issues facing President Bush. Most Arab nations and some European governments are increasingly at odds with US policy toward this country, even as officials of the new administration insist that a hard line remains justified.

The US government appears convinced that President Saddam Hussein remains committed to rebuilding Iraq's military and reviving programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. If Iraq were not contained, the reasoning goes, Mr. Hussein would again pose a grave threat to the stability of the Middle East.

In recent days, two US newspapers have published reports saying that US officials are worried about renewed weapons production in Iraq and about an Iraqi-Syrian effort to circumvent UN regulations governing the sale of Iraqi oil.

The Iraqis are equally convinced that the US is determined to subjugate them, mainly out of a desire to control their greatest natural resource.

Gulf War origins

The catalyst for this enduring conflict, in fact, goes back to a struggle over oil.

In 1990, Iraq invaded the neighboring state of Kuwait, citing historical claims to the territory, following a dispute over the ownership of oil fields. The US organized an international coalition and then went to war in 1991, evicting the invaders from Kuwait but stopping short of toppling Hussein's government.

After a cease-fire, the UN Security Council decided to maintain a strict economic embargo against Iraq in order to force Hussein to yield to UN weapons inspections.

Independent of the UN, the US and other powerful nations also announced a ban on flights in the north and south of the country to protect rebel groups from Iraqi air attack.

The no-fly zone in the south went into effect after Iraq had crushed rebellion by Shiite Muslim militants seeking to exploit the unstable situation in Iraq following the Gulf War. No major rebellion has been mounted since the zone was imposed.

In the north of the country, Kurdish groups have been more in conflict with each other than with the government of Iraq. But the government has largely withdrawn from the region, allowing the Kurds to govern themselves in three northern provinces of Iraq.

A tremendous amount of military resources have been invested in restricting virtually all Iraqi air traffic - regardless of purpose - from the two zones. US and British aircraft have flown nearly 153,000 "sorties," or flights, over southern Iraq, says Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman at the US Central Command in Tampa, Fl., which oversees the Middle East. In the fiscal year that ended in September 2000, the effort in the southern zone alone cost the US $1.4 billion.

Although some Iraqi domestic commercial flights have resumed in recent months, the ban on Iraqis taking to the air is nearly total. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has had to employ Bulgarian pilots to fly Iraqi helicopters to spray pesticides on date palms.

A decade after the Gulf War, both the embargo - whose effects on the Iraqi economy and society have been devastating - and the no-fly zones remain in effect. As a result, many Iraqis say they feel as if they have been in a constant state of war.

The embargo has been a passive, creeping assault in which malnourishment and disease have been the main killers. But the situation in the north and south of the country, routinely overflown by US and British warplanes, is more akin to a shooting war.

In December 1998, after a standoff between Iraq and the UN over of weapons inspections, the US and Britain bombed military-related targets in Baghdad and other parts of the country for three days. Since that time, the Iraqi military has challenged the enforcement of the "no fly" zones, launching missiles and firing artillery at US and British warplanes.

In response, the Americans and the British fire back at military sites, generally attacking the very installations that are targeting them. The US rules of engagement dictate that pilots may attack Iraqi sites as soon as their aircraft are threatened.

The latest airstrike

That's what the US says happened on Jan. 20, when six apparently innocent civilians were killed in As-Salman.

American jets used precision-guided missiles to attack a facility, which a US military spokesman says was a radar site. The Iraqis insist otherwise, and a visit to the area - arranged by Iraqi officials on Jan. 21 - yields plenty of evidence of veterinary work, and no remnants of anti-aircraft activity.

An old prison adjacent to the veterinary clinic serves as a military camp, but international aid workers who visited As-Salman on Jan. 17 say "there were no anti-aircraft facilities in the area ... around the clinic," according to an aid official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since the end of 1998, the Iraqi government says 323 civilians have been killed and 960 wounded by British and US warplanes. During the same period, says Lt. Col. Thomas, there were 780 Iraqi "violations" of the southern no-fly zone, including instances where aircraft enforcing the zone came under attack or the threat of attack.

US military officials insist that they do everything possible to avoid killing noncombatants, but say they have no way of tracking civilian casualties. They have acknowledged errors.

On May 12, 1999, jets bombed and strafed the area around a tank used to water sheep in the northern no-fly zone, killing 19 people according to the Iraqi accounts. US military officials later acknowledged that a misreading of satellite imagery - the water tank appeared to be a missile launcher - was to blame.

What happened in As-Salman may have been an accurate hit, an atrocity, or just a mistake.

"The site that we struck near As-Salman was a military site, and what we have indicates that we hit that target," says Thomas.

At the site, a structure that bore the brunt of the attack has been reduced to rubble. A next-door warehouse is partly carpeted with chicken feathers and excrement. A small building nearby, its windows shattered, is stocked with worm medicine for sheep, medical manuals, and other veterinary supplies.

At the funeral procession in Samawa, the mourners and marchers have heard the American explanations before, and they don't trust them.

"They say they always hit military targets, but this was a civilian target," says Aswan Habib, riding behind the body of his cousin, Khalid Khazzal.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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