As early as the autumn of 2001, US military authorities took steps to increase surveillance of southern Iraq and then to systematically bomb Iraq's command posts, air defense weapons, and communication links in anticipation of possible war, according to the American general who commanded the air campaign.
The intensified airstrikes, which got underway in earnest in the summer of 2002, were justified publicly at the time as a response to increased Iraqi targeting of US pilots patrolling a no-fly zone. But providing new details about how the operation -- dubbed ''Southern Focus'' -- was conceived and executed, Lieutenant General T. Michael ''Buzz'' Moseley said the fact that the United States had put more planes in the air over Iraq may have prompted the Iraqis to shoot more.
''So there is a chicken and an egg thing here,'' he said in an interview.
Moseley said the attacks, which were portrayed as enforcement of UN resolutions, eliminated the need for a long bombing campaign. They ultimately afforded General Tommy Franks, the top US commander in the region, greater flexibility in moving special operations forces and conventional ground troops into Iraq early when the decision was made to invade, Moseley said.
Although Bush administration officials have maintained that war was not inevitable and the decision to invade Iraq was not made until March this year, Moseley's comments make clear that military commanders started planning for stepped-up action soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and launched an operation to pick apart Iraq's air defense system about nine months before the war.
Moseley's remarks came as military officers who managed the air war completed an extensive ''lessons learned'' review here last week. Moseley and a senior aide delivered their summary assessments to about 300 American and allied military officers on Thursday.
They portrayed the campaign as a significant advance over any the United States had waged before, one that not only featured far greater use of overhead imagery and all-weather precision munitions, but also that saw an unprecedented degree of coordination between air and ground forces.
The result was an intense, sustained air assault on Iraqi forces that knocked out enemy air defenses, kept Iraqi warplanes from flying and cleared the way for the speedy advance of US ground troops into Baghdad.
But the review also shed new light on the confusion and conflict that existed between US air and ground commanders over procedures for striking Iraqi troops without endangering American forces. It disclosed that shortages in reconnaissance aircraft and bad weather severely crimped the ability of US forces early in the war to gauge the damage being done to Iraqi ground troops.
And it revealed that the amount of bandwidth -- or frequency channels -- available to US forces was insufficient, hindering the relay of targeting information and other urgent communications.
Responding to criticism that the air campaign, widely dubbed ''shock and awe,'' ended up pulling too many punches that delayed the downfall of President Saddam Hussein's government, Moseley defended the decision to avoid power plants, public water facilities, refineries, bridges, and other civilian structures in the interest of facilitating Iraq's postwar economic recovery and keeping down the number of civilian deaths.
Moseley said he had not expected the initial airstrikes, which focused on pummeling Hussein's palaces, security operations, intelligence services, and Ba'ath Party buildings, to topple the government but to help weaken the protective screen around the Iraqi leader. ''I do think the airstrikes are one of the deciding factors in setting the conditions for the regime to go away,'' he said.
Moseley said he approached Franks about intensifying the airstrikes in southern Iraq in November 2001, after taking over as the top air commander in the Middle East.
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