The Unseen War in Iraq

When troops are cut, we'll still be bombing the hell out of the place

In every war, some things are seen more clearly than others and are therefore reported more fully. The air war in Iraq is not one of them. American air power has been dominant in most of the modern wars, but bombing and strafing take place either completely out of sight or in areas not accessible to close observation by the press. Rarely does the military allow reporters to go along on combat sorties.

In the Vietnam War, some of the bombing was kept secret, such as the heavy raids in 1969–70 on North Vietnamese sanctuaries inside Cambodia, before that country was drawn full-bore into the war by the Nixon "incursion" in the spring of 1970. Military records were altered to make it appear that all this carpet bombing was carried out inside Vietnam.

Little is known or seen of the air part of the American war of today, in Iraq. One of the reasons is that the press, with less mobility because of security risks, has to be focused on what's happening on the ground, where the damage, human and material, is taking place. A more crucial reason is that the Pentagon and the CIA prefer to tell us as little as possible about air war operations.

Recently, but only in bits and pieces, military officials in Washington have acknowledged that after the U.S. and Britain withdraw the bulk of their ground troops, the American air component will be kept in the region to support the American-trained Iraqi ground forces who will be taking over the ground war. While the Pentagon doesn't say anything about increasing air power in Iraq, other military sources—speaking anonymously because the information is classified—confirm that the plans call for the air war to be beefed up and kept that way for years to come. These sources also point to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as a reason for keeping air power at a high-alert level in the region.

Since air strikes cause a significant percentage of civilian casualties, the air war's continuance ensures that the U.S. will wear a bull's-eye on its back indefinitely in the Middle East. It also means that the American press will have to push harder to provide more detailed and regular coverage of the air war.

Some reporters have already made the air war a separate, high-priority subject. The Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer, in a lengthy article this past December 24, described the air-strike toll on civilians during Operation Steel Curtain in far western Iraq. In the town of Husaybah alone, one week into the operation, a doctor, Zahid Mohammed Rawi, said medical workers had recorded 97 civilians killed. Rawi said "at least 38 insurgents" were also killed. "I dare any organization, committee, or the American Army to deny these numbers," Rawi told Knickmeyer. Her story pointed out that the military and Iraqi civilian casualty reports "often diverge sharply." She also clearly explained that the insurgents, in this mostly urban war, forcibly embed themselves amid civilian families—both as a shield and to make sure that the Americans will be unable to avoid killing civilians.

What we need is more reporting like hers, from the field and from Washington.

The Pentagon does give out some basic information about the Iraq air war. It says that roughly 45 U.S. and British warplanes are in the air daily, plus helicopters from the Army, Marines, and Special Forces. Most strikes are made by American F-15s and F-16s, which fly in from bases outside Iraq—and also by F-14s and F/A-18s that take off from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. British attack jets—GR-4s and GR-7s—fly bombing missions as well.

The munitions used by the U.S. planes, according to the Pentagon, are mostly precision-guided bombs, usually of the 500-pound variety. Strafing runs are also employed, using 40mm cannon fire. Unmanned Predator drones use missiles.

The number of officially reported air strikes has risen sharply in recent months. Until August, the Pentagon figure was about 25 a month. By November it had risen to 120, nearly five times the old rate.

After most American ground troops leave Iraq, a sizable number, perhaps a few thousand, will stay behind to be embedded as advisers with the Iraqi forces. Seymour Hersh, in a recent New Yorker piece, reported that some military sources are expressing concern that Iraqi commanders will eventually be given the power to select targets for the American planes. The worry is that in ethnically fragmented Iraq, targets might be chosen to settle old scores, thus increasing civilian casualties and endangering the embedded U.S. advisers.

Publicly, the Pentagon insists that target selection will be in American hands. My own experience in Indochina tells me it's rarely that neat and tidy.

Keep in mind that no nation-state gives out complete military information. The Pentagon is no different; it's not overly trusting, especially not at a time when anyone can chat on the Internet and unthinkingly give away information that could cause harm.

Also, the Pentagon spins information like any other government power center. For example, in the early stages of the Iraq war, U.S. forces hit Iraqi troops with incendiary bombs that exploded into fireballs like napalm and stuck to human skin and kept burning—just like napalm. American officers on scene told reporters it was napalm. The reporters wrote stories. Higher officials denied it was napalm. The Pentagon insisted that napalm—in response to international protests about its use in Vietnam and U.N. strictures approved in 1980—had been removed from the American arsenal. The last batch of napalm in storage, it said, had been destroyed on April 4, 2001.

Some reporters, notably James Crawley of The San Diego Union-Tribune, kept digging. Five months later, in August 2003, the Pentagon finally admitted that while it wasn't exactly napalm, it was a very close relative. The napalm formula used in Vietnam was made from polystyrene (the jellying agent), benzene, and gasoline. After the protests and the U.N. ban, the military substituted jet fuel for the gasoline and benzene—and were now calling the weapon a Mark 77 firebomb. Its effects on a target were "remarkably similar" to the old napalm, the Pentagon said, but this version had "less of an impact on the environment."

The Pentagon's moral of the story: We did not seek to deceive. If only the reporters had referred to the device by its correct name, there would have been no confusion.

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