More than 1,200 American and coalition aircraft are operating in the Persian Gulf region. An incorrect total was given in a March 9 article on U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. (Published 3/11/03)
The commander of U.S. air forces in the Persian Gulf region said yesterday that several months of intensified U.S. airstrikes had hit all fixed air defenses in southern Iraq known to American officials. But he added that mobile antiaircraft guns and missiles remained a threat to U.S. pilots.
"We've killed what we know is there," Air Force Lt. Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley said. "But they have a lot of depth in mobile systems that they can continue to roll into the south. The mobile systems are the ones I worry about the most."
The arrival of hundreds of additional Air Force and Navy carrier-based aircraft in the region in the past two months has enabled the United States to more than double the number of sorties over southern Iraq. This in turn has led to wider and more frequent coverage of the southern "no-fly" zone, Moseley said.
More than 400 U.S. planes are now operating from about 30 locations in the gulf and elsewhere, according to other officials. In the past month, U.S. pilots have struck from seven to 14 targets in Iraq a week.
But Moseley said patrols are still not being flown 24 hours a day, and Iraqi forces continue to shoot at U.S. aircraft. Since passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 in early November, which gave Iraq one more chance to disarm, Iraqi forces have fired more than 200 antiaircraft artillery shells and more than 100 missiles at U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the southern zone, Moseley said.
"They're moving stuff around, they're enhancing the no-fly zone and they're a continual threat to my pilots and crews," he said. "Sometimes they shoot at us 10 or 11 or 12 times during an operation."
As commander of the 9th Air Force and the air component commander for the U.S. Central Command, Moseley would direct the air campaign in a war against Iraq. His remarks in a telephone interview were intended to portray the intensification of U.S. airstrikes against Iraq as still essentially an enforcement action prompted by a rise in Iraqi attacks in violation of U.N. resolutions.
But the increasingly aggressive U.S. targeting in the southern and northern no-fly zones established a decade ago has been widely seen as reflecting an American plan for the systematic destruction of Iraqi air defenses and, more recently, surface-to-surface missiles in a fashion that would ease the way for an invasion. The surge in sorties, which now number well in the hundreds daily -- and reached a record 1,000 one day last week -- has transformed what was once a limited patrolling operation into a broader, more intense prelude to a possible full-scale war.
The first sign of the widened campaign came in September when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disclosed that he had directed commanders to focus retaliatory strikes not just on Iraqi radar and missile systems, but also on air defense communications centers, command posts and cable relay sites to eliminate all elements of Iraq's air defense network in the no-fly zones.
Lately, the strikes have widened further to include surface-to-surface missiles, which Iraq has moved into the southern zone within range of Kuwait, the key staging area for the bulk of U.S. ground forces massing in the region. Such weapons, which include Ababil-100 missiles, Frog-7 rockets and Astros-2 multiple rocket launchers, have also been shifted north of Baghdad presumably to attack U.S. or Kurdish forces coming from that direction, according to defense officials.
As with the airstrikes on weapons and facilities related to air defense, the U.S. justification for hitting the surface-to-surface weapons is enforcement of U.N. resolutions prohibiting Iraq from enhancing its military capabilities in ways that would threaten Kurds in the north or Shiites and the neighboring countries of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south.
But Iraq does not recognize the zones. Nor does the United Nations, whose resolutions have not called for enforcement patrols.
Further, the vast majority of airstrikes have continued to occur in the southern no-fly zone out of deference to Turkey, which, while allowing U.S. and British aircraft to fly out of its territory to patrol the northern zone, has imposed much narrower limits on the kinds of targets it will allow. Even in the north, though, the target set has appeared to widen lately. The last set of attacks, reported on Feb. 27, went against three types of air defense communication sites: fiber optic, cable and microwave.
While defense officials have generally declined to provide exact estimates of the amount of damage done by the airstrikes over the years, they have acknowledged that much of Iraq's air defense network has remained intact, because many of its radars and antiaircraft weapons have been kept out of the no-fly zones and concentrated in the central part of the country.
Additionally, the Iraqis have shown considerable skill in repairing damaged weapons and facilities.
But Moseley said the point of the strikes has not been to destroy all Iraqi military assets in the no-fly zones, just those considered threats to pilots or neighboring states. He also refused to link the rise in U.S. strikes to preparations for a possible war.
"The intent is to enforce the zone," the general said. "So we've been very disciplined and proportional in the responses."