The American military campaign against Iraq has been going on for more than a decade in the US- and British-enforced no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.
But the low-level warfare between allied pilots and Iraqi air-defense gunners is intensifying and could be considered the opening volleys of Gulf War II.
"Now [allied forces] are systematically going through the targets, and doing so would allow you to move more quickly to a more aggressive air campaign," says Tim Ripley, an air-power expert at the Centre for Defence and International Studies at Britain's University of Lancaster. "In almost every air war since [the 1991 Gulf War], we've seen a big campaign to destroy air defenses before a major air offensive. You could say this is actually happening now." This tactic was used in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The US Air Force has flown nearly 50 missions so far this year. Among the targets in recent weeks was what Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs, called a "major node" of Iraq's Chinese-supplied fiber-optic network that links the air-defense system.
The latest strikes appear to be part of a changing pattern. Instead of going after the missile launchers that target them, allied pilots are blasting the command and communication centers and radar networks for those launchers. While that strategy was adopted haphazardly shortly after President Bush took office in early 2001, Iraq analysts agree that US responses now are far more focused.
Capping a series of high-profile airstrikes against Iraqi air defense targets including two attacks at Basra airport in the south, and one that involved an armada of 100 aircraft last month US planes last Thursday launched a new psychological operations campaign.
Flanked by jet fighters, a psy-ops plane dropped 120,000 leaflets over southern Iraq air-defense units the first such drop in a year warning, "The destruction experienced by your colleagues in other air defense locations" was the result of firing on US and British planes.
"No tracking or firing on these aircraft will be tolerated," the leaflet warned, in a tactic used during the first Gulf War and in Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. "You could be next."
These planes were fired upon by Iraq on Thursday, and the Pentagon says it responded by hitting targets near Tallil, 160 miles southeast of Baghdad. Iraqi officials counter that "civilian installations" in the southern city of Nasseriyah were hit, leaving five dead and 11 wounded, and claimed that Iraqi fire forced "enemy warplanes to flee to their base in Kuwait."
The previous Tuesday, US and British planes hit a mobile radar unit near Al-Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. The Saturday before, facilities at the airport of Basra had been hit for a second time.
While it is a "little bit early to say the conflict has started, [US strikes] are more oriented toward targets of opportunity that, yes, if you were ramping up a campaign, you would want to hit," says Gordon Adams, head of the Security Policy Studies Program at George Washington University.
The operation with 100 planes last month was a "signal" to Baghdad, Mr. Adams says: "This could crank up at anytime; we know where you are; expect more of this when we start to move into a more serious phase."
Over the years, the zones have shown their deterrence and "nuisance" value, says Adams. "The Iraqis are very good at reconstituting. They are getting better at illuminating [with radar] and running. They are more mobile, but [the no-fly zones] have made increasing Iraq's ability more difficult."
While President Bush warned on Saturday that if Iraq "persists in its defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable," that defiance occurs almost daily in the no-fly zones.
US officials say that in the last three years since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein declared open season on US and British aircraft in Iraqi airspace allied planes have been fired upon 1,000 times by Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries, by 600 rockets, and by some 60 surface-to-air missiles.
That rate of Iraqi targeting began to multiply in mid-September, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week, immediately after Iraq promised to allow United Nations weapons inspectors "unfettered" access.
In response, analysts say, US retaliatory strikes have become more damaging and concerted.
Though the UN Security Council has never explicitly authorized the no-fly zones, the Bush administration portrays these air operations as actions to enforce UN resolutions. By extension, US officials claim, Iraq's targeting of US pilots flying over Iraqi airspace is a violation of UN rules.
But Iraq, along with Russia and others, consider the no-fly zones to be illegitimate, referring to elements of the same UN resolutions that codify Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Regardless of the legal wrangle, the current tempo of and rhetoric surrounding US strikes shouldn't be confused with the actual start of hostilities, says Chris Hellman, a military expert at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
"Clearly, if you are hitting any of the air defense net, it's going to degrade it," Mr. Hellman says. "But when we decide to degrade [Iraq's] air defense, we won't do it by one strike every three weeks. We'll do it by 1,500 strikes in three hours."
The no-fly zones were imposed on Iraq shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi forces had shown that their ability to continue flying helicopters enabled them to quell uprisings by ethnic Kurds in the north, and Shiite Muslims in the south. Some 1.5 million Kurds fled into Turkey and Iran, in the face of Mr. Hussein's advancing forces. The Shiite opposition was decimated.
The northern no-fly zone was established by the US to help enforce UN Security Council resolutions 678 and 688, which call for restoring order and for protecting ethnic groups in Iraq. Under that umbrella, Kurds have since built a nascent state, free of Baghdad's control.
Mr. Rumsfeld said last week that it "bothers the dickens out of me that American and British air crews are getting fired at day after day after day with impunity." He cast allied pilots in the role of UN peacekeepers an image rejected at UN headquarters. "With each missile launched at our air crews," Rumsfeld said, "Iraq expresses its contempt for the UN resolutions."
"There's been a lot of rhetoric on this issue," says a UN official in New York. Those pilots "don't belong to any UN operation that much is clear. They belong to a nation acting on its own authority, and that nation cites the broader mandate given by UN resolutions to justify its actions."
Today, the no-fly zones extend north of the 36th parallel, and south of the 33rd parallel, essentially boxing in the Hussein regime. More than a quarter million sorties have been flown by allied planes in more than a decade. After the US launched a four-day bombing campaign in December 1998, Mr. Hussein vowed to take on allied patrols.
Since then, US and British planes flying from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have been shot at, on average, two out of every three days. Hussein is reported to have offered a reward to any Iraqi soldier who can bring down an allied plane.
Those risks may be worth taking to patrol the no-fly zones, in the US military's view. In 1994, US pilots detected the build-up of a potential Iraqi invasion force toward Kuwait, prompting a swift US response that forced Iraq to back down.