From The Scotsman
Sat 1 Mar 2003
Has war with Iraq already started?
TIM RIPLEY IN BAHRAIN
THE US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was whisked into Salahuddin, in the heart of the ‘free’ Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq this week, surrounded by a phalanx of American special forces troops.
At the side of the flamboyant "ambassador-at-large for free Iraqis", was the US army’s Lieutenant General Colby M Broadwater III, who is masterminding the deployment of 65,000 GIs into Turkey and northern Iraq.
The mere presence of such a high ranking US delegation - on sovereign Iraqi territory, at a gathering of all the main groups opposed to the Baghdad regime - was a clear signal that the US president, George Bush, is set on going ahead with his plans to ‘execute’ regime change, no matter what the United Nations Security Council may say in the next few days.
The meeting had been called and then cancelled several times before at the behest of the State Department out of fear that it would send the Iraqi crisis ‘critical’ before the US military was ready.
Even before the UN gives its final verdict on Iraqi compliance with its demands for disarmament, however, the Bush administration appears to be only a few days, maybe hours, away from the point of ‘no return’ in its political and military preparations for battle. The key decision point will come tomorrow when Turkey’s parliament is expected to vote to allow US troops to open a northern front against Baghdad.
The amount of money being spent on the US deployment to Turkey runs to some billion (£19billion) in loan guarantees, a further billion (£4billion) in direct aid, hundreds of millions in military aid, and on top, the cost of moving its troops into positions hundreds of miles inside Asia Minor.
That alone makes it perfectly clear that Mr Bush’s "freeing Iraq" rhetoric is not an exercise in sending token political signals. If it is, then it must be one of the most expensive signals of US political intent ever.
Hours before the US delegation ventured into Iraq, the US air force sent its own signal to the Baghdad regime when it bombed three short-range missile launchers six miles south of Mosul, Iraq’s most northern city. It would seem the Americans were telling the Iraqis not to even think about interrupting the Salahuddin meeting.
Although air strikes against Iraqi anti-aircraft defences by the US and British jets based at Incirlik in Turkey are routine, this was the first ever air strike against Iraqi army ground artillery positions since the no fly zone patrols began in 1991.
The Turkish government, which up to now has kept a tight rein on the type of targets that could be attacked in the northern no fly zone, was also signalling that it had signed up to America’s war on Iraq.
Last Tuesday’s air strike was far from an isolated incident and appears to be part of an increasingly aggressive campaign of air strikes aimed at destroying the Iraqi army’s missile and rocket systems and extending the US bombing effort beyond striking at Iraq’s air defences. This past fortnight has seen a spate of attacks on Iraqi surface-to-surface missile batteries and rocket launchers, which the Pentagon claims are a "threat" to US and coalition ground troops.
Two US air raids have hit Ababil-100 missile batteries located around Basra, and on 18 February a multiple rocket launcher was destroyed in the same area by precision guided munitions. This week another missile battery was hit near Basra. This was barely two hours after the US air force had blasted an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile battery a few miles away.
Iraqi positions on the Fao peninsular and around Basra have been repeatedly bombed. It clearly indicates that the US Middle East commander, General Tommy Franks, wants to soften up Iraqi defences in key strategic areas, particularly the region close to Kuwait border and the huge Ramailah oil field where US troops will make their first advance across the border.
This effort has been supported by a propaganda leaflet campaign aimed at prompting Iraqi officers to mount a coup and tempting the rank and file soldiers to desert their posts.
In military jargon, all these attacks look very like a systematic effort to ‘prepare the battlefield’ ahead of any ground invasion. US commanders are clearly constrained by the lack ‘political cover’ from the existing UN mandates but the Pentagon appears to be stretching its existing mandate to patrol the "no fly zone" to the limit to allow its aircraft to hit an increased "target set".
In the Gulf war, General "Stormin’" Norman Schwarzkopf used the two month long air campaign to prepare the battlefield in Kuwait, with coalition air strikes destroying half of Iraq’s tanks and prompting mass desertions of Iraqi conscripts.
While the current ‘preparation of the battlefield’ effort is nowhere near the scale of the Gulf war air campaign, the US campaign to date has been very focused on small but strategically vital areas.
Gen Franks is ensuring that his troops meet with minimum resistance when they first cross into Iraq and then create a bow wave of ‘regime collapse’, as US forces sweep northwards from Kuwait and southwards from Kurdistan. Until the first US GIs cross the border it remains to be seen if the plan will work.