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"No-Fly" Zones and 16 Feb 01 Bombing: S. Graham-Brown Background and Analysis (MERIP-20 Feb 01)

MERIP Press Information Note 49

No-Fly Zones: Rhetoric and Real Intentions

Sarah Graham-Brown

February 20, 2001

(Sarah Graham-Brown, a contributing editor of Middle East Report, is author of Sanctioning Saddam 
[St. Martin's Press, 1999].)

In the long years of confrontation between the US and Iraq, an almost symbiotic relationship has 
developed between US and Iraqi efforts to raise the political and military stakes. The latest 
clashes in the no-fly zones, culminating in the February 16 US-UK attack on Iraqi command and 
control sites north of the 33rd parallel, are no exception. Bill Clinton's arrival in office in 
January 1993 triggered brief but intense Iraqi anti-aircraft
fire in both no-fly zones, and the US responded with bombing raids. Now the Iraqis, having upgraded 
their air defense targeting system, apparently with Serbian help, have intensified anti-aircraft 
fire upon planes patrolling the no-fly zones as the new Bush administration was installed. George 
W. Bush
reacted to the Iraqi regime's "provocation" by authorizing last Friday's missile attack, which 
allowed Saddam Hussein to pose as the champion of Iraqi and Arab interests. Hussein in turn obliged 
the US government's public relations campaign by calling the raid an "Israeli plot."

Sustaining the no-fly zones is a costly exercise. The US bill for the southern zone alone in the 
fiscal year that ended in September 2000 was $1.4 billion. What does the Pentagon claim to achieve 
with this massive expenditure? As with previous US-UK attacks in the no-fly zones, the immediate 
rationale for the February 16 raid was "self-defense" -- a response to anti-aircraft fire, or to 
Iraqi radar "locking on" to US-UK
planes. But the rhetoric surrounding the zones still reiterates the formulas used to justify them 
since 1991. These formulas hold that no-fly zones protect civilian populations -- Kurds in the 
north and Shi'a in the south -- and that they are part of an international policy of "containing 
Iraq" and protecting its neighbors from attack. But the actual history of these zones
displays a considerable gap between publicly declared purposes and real intentions.


The February 16 attack was an escalation, in that it targeted installations outside the no-fly 
zones, but the scale of action in the no-fly zones has increased dramatically since the beginning 
of 1999. Although there had been several major clashes over the no-fly zones since 1991, the 
pattern of attack and response was much less intense. According to UK Ministry of
Defense figures quoted by The Times in June 2000, since mid-December 1998, RAF bombers alone 
dropped 78 tons of bombs on Iraqi military targets, compared with 2.5 tons between April 1991 and 
December 1998. The average monthly release of bombs rose from 0.025 tons to five tons. The casualty 
rate on the ground has also gone up sharply. Although the figures are
contested, the Iraqi government claims that between December 1998 and the beginning of 2001, 323 
civilians have been killed and 960 injured by US and UK attacks in the no-fly zones.

It was the collapse of UNSCOM's role at the end of 1998 that led the Clinton administration to 
adopt "aggressive enforcement" of the no-fly zones as part of its so-called "enhanced containment" 
of Iraq. Soon after Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, President Clinton quietly sanctioned 
changes in the rules of engagement for US aircraft operating in the no-fly zones. This
allowed US pilots to strike at any part of the Iraqi air defense system, not just those that 
directly target their aircraft. On February 23, 1999, a US Defense Department spokesman spelled out 
the targets, which include "missile sites, anti-aircraft sites, command and control sites, relay 
stations and some intelligence gathering sites." In March 1999, the British government for the 
first time conceded that the changes affected their pilots as well.


The original northern no-fly zone was first declared by President George Bush in early April 1991 
to protect coalition aircraft during the airdrops of aid to Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border 
and then to protect coalition ground troops advancing into northern Iraq as part of Operation 
Provide Comfort. This action, Britain, France and the US asserted, was taken under the terms of UN 
Security Council Resolution 688, which called on Iraq to cease repression of its civilian 
population. However no explicit endorsement in the form of a Security Council resolution was 
obtained for either Operation Provide Comfort, or the no-fly zone.

When coalition ground troops were withdrawn, the no-fly zone was left in place, ostensibly to 
"protect" the Kurds and the international humanitarian workers based in the north. After the Iraqi 
government decided, in October 1991, to withdraw its ground troops -- and all funding -- from the 
three northern governorates, the region came under Kurdish control but had no
formalized status. It was part of Iraq but not under government control. The no-fly zone and the 
presence of international humanitarian staff may have deterred the Iraqi regime from trying to 
retake the northern region, but as a protection mechanism it has had considerable limitations.

The northern no-fly zone does not coincide exactly with the "de facto" line to which Iraqi troops 
withdrew. The no-fly zone therefore includes Mosul, still under government control, but excludes 
Sulaimaniyya, the largest city of the Kurdish-controlled region, along with the southern part of 
governorate. Also outside the zone is the city of Kirkuk, a center of the Iraqi oil industry that 
remains under government control. But it is here that Kurds are at most direct risk from the Iraqi 
regime, which has pursued a policy of Arabization of the city and the surrounding region. Kurds 
have been forced to resettle elsewhere in Iraq or move to the Kurdish-controlled
areas, stripped of their ration cards and all their possessions. According to Kurdish sources 
quoted by Amnesty International, over 94,000 Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants have been expelled 
from Kirkuk since 1991.

Finally, the air exclusion zone applies only to Iraqi aircraft, not to Turkish or Iranian air 
forces. Although the zone has been effective in deterring Iraqi air attacks, the Turks, pursuing 
their war with the PKK, continue to use both air and ground troops on a regular basis inside Iraqi 
Kurdistan, often causing civilian deaths, injuries and destruction of property. The US has never 
challenged Turkey's incursions -- the latest when
10,000 Turkish troops crossed the border in December 2000 -- though the EU and UN have periodically 
made ineffectual protests.


In August 1992, members of the Gulf war coalition announced the
establishment of a second no-fly zone covering the region to the south of the 32nd parallel, on a 
line just to the north of Najaf and Amara. The immediate trigger for action was the UN Human Rights 
Special Rapporteur's report on the increasing Iraqi military pressure on the population of the 
southern marshes. However, the Rapporteur had envisaged some form of monitoring on the ground, 
rather than a no-fly zone. The announcement of the
zone avoided the necessity for ground action of any kind, while it allowed the US to appear tough 
after one of the many disputes over weapons inspections that had occurred in July 1992.

Once again Resolution 688 was invoked to justify the  intervention. But the southern zone has never 
actually contributed anything to the safety of the civilian population. In fact, the role assigned 
to the mission was to "observe" violations, not to stop them. As early as 1994, the US State
Department's annual report on the human rights situation in Iraq
acknowledged that, although the no-fly zone prevented aerial attacks on the southern marshes, it 
did not prevent artillery attacks or other army actions. By the end of 1996, the same source noted 
that civilians were not protected from ground attack in either zone.


Gradually, the US began to justify the southern no-fly zone more as a means of reassuring its 
allies in the Gulf that Iraqi planes would be kept far away from their airspace. Then, under the 
Clinton administration's policy of "containment" of Iraq, both no-fly zones became part of the 
vague objective to "keep up the pressure on Saddam." In the north, the CIA began to support
efforts by Iraqi opposition groups to stage an attack and possibly a coup attempt from Iraqi 

The result of this ill-judged effort was an Iraqi military incursion into Erbil in September 1996, 
the first major movement of Iraqi troops into the Kurdish-controlled zone since 1991. Opposition 
members fled or were killed and all UN humanitarian aid personnel left the north. Instead of 
challenging the short-lived Iraqi incursion, or attacking the advancing Iraqi troops,
the US chose to attack targets in the south and unilaterally extend the southern no-fly zone to the 
33rd parallel. As the Bush administration moves to support the Iraqi opposition in its attempt to 
operate once again inside the northern no-fly zone, and across the Iranian border into the south, 
it would be well-advised not to forget the past history of "adventures" in the
no-fly zones.


This latest phase in the no-fly zones' history underlines their role as instruments of individual 
states' policy, rather than concerted action by the international community. Since France withdrew 
from the northern zone at the end of 1996 and suspended its participation in the southern zone at 
the end of 1998, only US and UK aircraft patrol the zones. France, along with Russia and China, is 
now openly critical of the bombing campaign. Even
Turkey -- whose Incirlik air base launches US-UK sorties in the north -- condemned the February 16 
attack. Arab states were mildly critical.

The new Bush administration's early response was certainly meant to send a tough signal to the 
Iraqi regime. But the message seems to be aimed at other Middle Eastern leaders as well. In 
preparation for Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the region beginning February 23, the 
administration wants to highlight the threat Iraq poses to the region. On February 11, Powell told 
CBS's Face the Nation: "What [Saddam Hussein] can't do is invade his neighbors anymore, but he can 
threaten his neighbors with weapons of mass destruction." Of course, this threat --  in the absence 
of UN weapons inspections on the ground -- cannot be substantiated at present.

The use of air power in recent conflicts has often signaled ambivalence and uncertain policies. The 
present low-level warfare being conducted by the US and UK in Iraq seems a good example of this 
absence of strategic thinking. Meanwhile, the February 16 bombing will only reinforce Iraqi 
well-rooted view that despite their rhetoric, the US and UK have little or no interest in their 

(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 49, "No-Fly Zones: Rhetoric 
and Real Intentions," by Sarah Graham-Brown, February 20, 2001. The author can be contacted for 
comment at


For background on the area "protected" by the northern no-fly zone, see MERIP Press Information 
Note 44: Almost Unnoticed: Interventions and Rivalries in Iraqi Kurdistan:

The summer 2000 issue of Middle East Report (MER 215), "Iraq: A Decade of Devastation," assesses 
the impact on Iraq of ten years of war and sanctions. Phyllis Bennis's overview of US policy toward 
Iraq is accessible online at:

To order individual copies of Middle East Report or to subscribe, please call Blackwell Publishers 
at 1-800-835-6770.


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