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Election 2004

'No-fly' zone perils were for Iraqis, not allied pilots

Published October 29, 2004

Among the reasons U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez supported the war in Iraq was the alleged danger faced by U.S. and British pilots who protected "no-fly" zones in that country before the 2003 invasion.

In his first debate with Betty Castor, the Orlando Republican said that pilots were fired on "almost daily" and that "our men and women in uniform flying those aircraft were risking their lives."

Technically, that's true. But a closer look at the history of the no-fly zones shows that the real risk was to innocent Iraqis. Over an 11-year period, hundreds of civilians, including children, were killed or injured by U.S. and British airstrikes, while not a single allied pilot was shot down or killed by Iraqi fire.

"The casualties were in the very areas allegedly established to protect people," Hans von Sponeck, then coordinator of the U.N. humanitarian program in Iraq, said in 2002. "The cruel reality is that people are dying as a result of these no-fly zones."

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States, Britain and France created the zones in northern and southern Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein's forces from bombing rebellious groups in those regions. All Iraqi planes were grounded, but allied jets routinely took to the skies, hitting Iraq's air defense systems and other military targets.

"It was a permanent, low-level war," says James Paul, executive director of Global Policy Forum, which monitors U.N. policymaking. "I don't think citizens of the United States and the U.K. realized the intensity of this thing - there were thousands of sorties flown at huge expense."

By 2002, it became clear that the United States and Britain viewed the main purpose of the no-fly zones as more military than humanitarian.

With so many bombs dropped and missiles fired, civilian casualties were inevitable.

On Jan. 25, 1999, Saeidh Hassan and her three daughters were at home in Basra, a southern port city, when a U.S. missile slammed into their apartment block. Trapped under concrete and steel, Mrs. Hassan called to her daughters but got no answer.

All three were killed instantly. A neighbor boy also died and more than 60 people were critically injured.

U.S. Central Command in Tampa said the strike was a "misfiring," and denied that the allies targeted civilians. Yet that year alone, there were 132 bombings that killed 120 Iraqis and injured 220, the U.N.'s von Sponeck found. Allied strikes also destroyed farms and other civilian property.

"How at a (33,000)-foot height can you protect a population?" von Sponeck wondered. "That is a fantasy."

By 2002, it became clear that the United States and Britain viewed the main purpose of the no-fly zones as more military than humanitarian. (France, concerned by the casualties, dropped out of the coalition in 1996.)

"Since the current Bush administration took power," journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote from Baghdad in 2002, "there has been a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of the bombings, particularly in the south of the country.

"The administration has used the zones to pre-emptively degrade Iraq's already limited ability to defend against a large-scale U.S. attack while not citing a single incident of attempted repression of Shiite or Kurdish populations as a justification."

By late 2002 - just a few months before the invasion - the allied sorties seemed more intended to frighten Iraqis than protect them. U.S. warplanes dropped leaflets in the no-fly zones with pictures of an explosion and a cowering Iraqi family.

"Before you engage coalition aircraft, think about the consequences," the flier warned in Arabic.

U.S. military officials say allied planes were repeatedly threatened while patrolling the zones - 470times in one 18-month period. Given that not a single pilot was killed or injured, though, does Martinez think the threat was exaggerated?

"I know (Defense) Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld didn't think it because I had that discussion on and on prior to the war," Martinez, a former Bush Cabinet member, said Thursday.

But for Iraqis, there was no question who faced the real danger. As Dr. Jawa Al-Ali, a Basra physician, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2000: "The Americans and British say we are protecting you with our airplanes, but at the same time they are killing us on the ground."

* * *

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this column. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 23:49:27]

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