John Prados is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. He is author of Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press).
The now-notorious Downing Street memos make it necessary to reframe the story of the aerial operations that took place before the war, with significant new conclusions emerging. It now appears that the United States, dragging a reluctant Great Britain behind it, executed a deliberate, purposeful bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq beginning in May 2002. Among the Downing Street memos are British government legal briefs written immediately before May 2002 finding that these air operations had no basis in international law and constituted aggressive acts.
In other words, Bush initiated hostilities a full 10 months before the Bush administration determined that all diplomatic means had been exhausted and six months before Congressional approval for the use of force.
From No-Fly To War Prep
The story begins with the No-Fly Zones imposed by the first Bush administration in the wake of the Gulf War of 1991. Those were intended to inhibit Saddam Hussein from using the remnants of his air force to suppress rebellions against him which broke out after his 1991 defeat. These zones were established over both northern and southern Iraq and enforced by U.S. and British aircraft flying from Turkey (for the north) and Saudi Arabia (for the southern zone). The latter operation, Operation Southern Watch, is the primary concern here.
Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, these No-Fly Zones were not established by the UN Security Council Resolutions that ended hostilities, nor by the Safwan ceasefire agreement reached directly by coalition forces and the Iraqi military command at the end of the war. Throughout the period from 1991 until 2002, these zones were maintained by means of constant U.S.-UK air patrols, with forces reacting by bombing or dog-fighting whenever the Iraqi air defenses actively opposed them.
Within weeks of taking office, the Bush administration signaled its toughness through a series of offensive air strikes against Iraq — but Operation Southern Watch then returned to business as usual. In fact the number of strikes against Iraqi ground targets in 2001 barely exceeded the previous year, and both years there were about half the number of strikes by Southern Watch aircraft as in 1999. All this changed in 2002. On January 24, 2002 allied aircraft struck an Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery site in southern Iraq. After that came a hiatus of three months.
Those three months involved very specific activity. In fact, Saudi Arabia, which did not support the U.S. adventure against Saddam, refused the use of its bases for anything more than the standard Southern Watch fighter patrols. In its search for operational flexibility the Bush administration shifted the locus of air operations to a base in Qatar that had to be developed on an emergency basis. Though the base at Al Uedid would not be complete until the fall, by May it had reached a condition permitting major aerial activity.
The War Begins
The air campaign, now re-branded Operation Southern Focus, assumed the character of a pre-invasion bombardment, under the leadership of Lieutenant General T. Michael Moseley, the CENTCOM air commander. Michael Gordon, writing in The New York Times on July 20, 2003, confirmed the nature of the campaign:
…Moseley, the chief allied war commander, said the attacks also laid the foundations for the military campaign against the Baghdad government.
Indeed, one reason it was possible for the allies to begin the ground campaign to topple Mr. Hussein without preceding it with an extensive array of airstrikes was that 606 bombs had been dropped on 391 carefully selected targets under the plan, General Moseley said.
Half a dozen Southern Focus air strikes took place during May and June, almost all against the expanded targets of Iraqi air defense centers rather than individual sites. On June 30, President Bush signed orders for U.S. forces to marshal for the invasion and make final plans and preparations. In July the character of the air campaign suddenly changed. Sixty percent of the strikes now aimed at Iraqi communications systems.
The Downing Street memos document the discussion of Iraq strategy by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet on July 23, 2002. Britrish defense secretary Geoffrey Hoon told Blair at that meeting that the Americans had already begun "spikes" of air activity to put pressure on Saddam, perhaps provoking a casus belli. To foreign secretary Jack Straw it seemed clear that Bush had already made up his mind to take military action.
Straw came prepared with a Foreign Office legal analysis that showed, quite explicitly, that the No-Fly Zones had no standing in international law, neither under UN resolutions nor the Safwan agreement, and the new air strategy had no justification under criteria for "self-defense." The date of the legal analysis, originally written in March, reveals that a revised air plan was already being considered at that time. Bush legal analysts disagreed. According to the minutes of the July cabinet meeting, Blair concerned himself more with the structuring of a political and legal framework to permit action, exactly as George W. Bush did in the United States.
On August 5, the war plan briefing took place at the White House. General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command and responsible for the operation, commented that "We want to continue to use response options to degrade the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System." Franks told the group the U.S. had already flown over 4,000 sorties (since British aircraft were dropping about a third of the bomb tonnage, and their aircraft had smaller loads than the American ones, that suggests a total of more than 6,000 flights in the campaign so far).
Conducting the Air Campaign
During August, communications attacks continued, but the air defense system remained the major target. On September 16, 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asserted that United States and British aircraft flying over Iraq had changed their tactics, on his orders, more than a month earlier. Instead of simply responding when shot at, the aircraft were to target Iraq's air defenses more broadly. It is now apparent that Rumsfeld's statement was designed to put a public face on a much more ambitious aerial campaign designed to pave the way for an invasion of Iraq.
During September strikes reached a very high level, with five out of ten hitting the communications network and, significantly, another strike aimed at Iraqi naval defenses. One of the strikes, on September 5, involved approximately one hundred aircraft. Targeting the Iraqi communications network did not merely aim at degrading air defenses, it reduced the effectiveness of Saddam's command structure overall. Since the goal of Southern Watch had always been protecting the sky, this indicates a major change in strategy.
Given the increased scale of the bombardment, it appears that Secretary Rumsfeld attempted to assuage the concerns of British legal experts. At a news conference on September 30, Rumsfeld declared that the purpose of the missions over Iraq was to perform "aerial weapons inspections," thus tenuously asserting a purpose more directly related to the UN resolutions. The CENTCOM press releases that routinely announced Southern Focus attacks began to say that aircraft were "monitoring compliance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions."
Yet, a total of 21,736 sorties were flown over southern Iraq between June 2002 and the beginning of the war, suggesting that over two thirds of them took place during the period beginning in September. Indeed, thousands of those attack sorties occurred before the U.S. Congress authorized the use of force (contingent on a fresh UN resolution) in October, and November, when the UN passed such a resolution (which, however, did not convey a final authorization to resort to force). In January 2003 the Washington Post reported that by that time there had been a total of sixty-two strikes aimed at Iraqi military command centers, communications facilities, and cable repeater stations, as opposed to thirty-six attacks on Iraqi radar or air-defense sites.
Among the data that reveal how much the Southern Focus air campaign differed from a simple response to Iraqi air defenses firing on U.S. or British aircraft, is the fact that Iraqi naval defenses were hit again. In fact, re-strikes on a variety of targets had the effect of continuing the suppression of Iraqi command nets. General Moseley's forces also began a psychological warfare component involving leaflet drops, then began attacking Iraqi surface-to-surface missile sites, again targets that had nothing whatever to do with Iraqi air defense.
Southern Focus clearly had the function of facilitating an invasion but was in itself an act of war. Saddam Hussein never did react to the strikes in such a fashion as to provide Bush with a casus belli, but the attacks continued until the very moment of the March 2003 invasion.
Operation Southern Focus furnishes yet more evidence that George W. Bush, while talking diplomacy, pursued an aggressive war.