Thursday, 12 January 2006

Why the Iraq air war remains secret

Most of US/UK military adventures are conducted in secrecy. The attacks are mainly led from the air, and since no journalists are allowed on to jets, the essential features of any conflict remain hidden.

Today in Iraq as steps are being made to begin the withdrawal of US/UK ground troops, the air campaign is being stepped up. Yet media coverage remains minimal.
A rare exception was Seymour Hersh’s report “Up in the air” in the December edition of the New Yorker. He reports a US Air Force press release indicating that, since the beginning of the conflict, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance. And he continues: “In recent months, the tempo of American bombing seems to have increased. Most of the targets appear to be in the hostile, predominantly Sunni provinces that surround Baghdad and along the Syrian border. As yet neither Congress nor the public has engaged in a significant discussion about the air war.”

Another report on the hidden air war appeared on Tom Engelhardt’s excellent blog ( on 13 December. Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who has spent eight months reporting bravely from occupied Iraq (and whose website at is well worth checking out), stresses that the “air war” does not merely involve massive deployments by the US Air Force. Navy and Marine aircraft flew more than 21,000 hours of missions during the Operation Phantom Fury assault on Fallujah in November 2004.

Jamail quotes the bland Air Force statements released on November 24 and November 27: “Coalition aircraft also supported Iraqi and Coalition ground forces operations to create a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary elections.” And he comments: “Such formulations, of course, tell us, as they are meant to, next to nothing about what may actually be happening – and, as the air war is virtually never covered by American reporters in Iraq, these and other versions of the official language of air power are never seriously considered, questioned, explored or compared to events on the ground.”

The Air Force claims that nearly 70 per cent of all munitions used by aircraft since the start of the conflict has been “precision guided” and “every possible precaution is taken to protect innocent Iraqi civilians, friendly Coalition forces, facilities and infrastructure”. But Jamail points out that the Lancet report in December 2004 estimated that 85 per cent of all violent deaths in Iraq are generated by Coalition forces - with many due to US air attacks.

Engelhardt, in his opening comments, quotes a journalist who wrote to him: “My own experience of Iraq is that while we are all aware of air power, we are rarely nearby when it’s deployed offensively. One does ‘hear’ the air power all the time, though: fighters and helicopters used to protect convoys, helis shipping people back and forth to bases or hunting in packs across towns; AWACS high up. I’ve even watched drones making patterns in the sky. So why don’t we film it?”

In the Sunday Times of 1 January, another rare report on the air war highlighted all the limitations of mainstream coverage. The story (headlined “US forces step up Iraq air strikes”) focuses on the dry “facts” of official military statistics: that the number of air strikes in 2005, running at a monthly average of 25 until August, surged to 120 in November and an expected 150 in December. No attention is directed at the human consequences of these air strikes. Instead, the military’s focus on its “humanitarian” mission and “precision bombing” is stressed. Casualties are referred to as “collateral damage” in the impersonal language of militaryspeak.

Thus the newspaper reports: “Determined to reduce ‘collateral damage’, the American military is relying on laser or satellite-guided bombs that can strike rooms or buildings without killing large numbers of civilians.”

As an example of the strategy it provides the recent example of two US F16 fighters which dropped two 500lb laser-guided bombs at “three men planting roadside explosives in Kirkuk province”. Yet even this example appears to contradict the military’s claims about “precision” since the report says that the bombs killed not only the three men but “seven others” (presumably innocent people nearby).

And on what basis did the Americans conclude those three men were actually “planting explosive”? Jamail highlights concerns that Shia and Kurdish militia members in Iraqi army uniforms may well be calling down air strikes in Sunni neighbourhoods, settling old scores and sending civilian casualty rates through the roof.