Published on Thursday, June 8, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian
Brits Question Recent Dramatic Increase In Bombing Of Iraqis
by Richard Norton-Taylor
British bomber pilots have dramatically increased their strikes on Iraq in the "secret war" against Saddam Hussein, official figures reveal.
An estimated 150 bombs - 78 tonnes of weapons - have been dropped on southern Iraq by British aircraft since December 1998. This compares with 2.5 tonnes over the previous six years.
"There is now persuasive evidence that there is an attritional campaign against the Iraqi ground-based air defence systems that has gone way beyond the original purpose of the no-fly zones," Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said yesterday. "This represents a significant policy shift, which has never been announced or explained to parliament."
Mr Campbell was given the figures by Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, in response to a series of written parliamentary questions. Mr Hoon admitted that on two occasions since December 1998, ordnance unleashed by British aircraft "appears to have hit unintended targets".
He also disclosed that the British commander in the southern no-fly zone had asked the government to "attack targets beyond his delegated authority".
He refused to explain the circumstances but sources suggested yesterday that permission was sought to hit Iraqi aircraft moving north, away from the no-fly zone.
In military action which is rarely reported, Mr Hoon says that while Iraqi aircraft violating the no-fly zone accounted for 51% of the "threats" to British and US war planes, 95% of the targets attacked consisted of ground-based air defence systems.
Two no-fly zones, policed by British and American planes, were agreed by the UN after the 1991 Gulf war. They were established to protect the Shia minority in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north.
"It's very good training but it is not achieving anything," Andrew Brookes, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said yesterday. He described it as a "sterile political mission of people who can't think of anything better to do".
Mr Hoon said Britain and the US went to "exceptional lengths to ensure that the right target is hit, including the employment of very strict target clearance procedures and precision-guided munitions". However, he acknowledged: "In practice, it is extremely difficult to give estimates of civilian casualties despite the painstaking battle damage assessment that the coalition routinely carries out".
Britain has 14 Tornado bombers stationed in Kuwait and Bahrain, and four Jaguars based at Incirlik in Turkey.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000