The political consequences for Iraq of the ending of NATO's Yugoslav air war remain uncertain, but the portents are not good. With helicopter gunships and ground troops replacing US bomber squadrons in the Balkans, the Pentagon will have more resources available for escalation in the Iraq-bombing campaign.

By Phyllis Bennis

July 1999

Washington: NATO [The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]'s war in Yugoslavia is over. So why are US F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers still in the sky, dropping smart (and some not-so-smart) bombs on unseen economic, civilian infrastructure, and some military targets far below?

Because even as the bombers turn to surveillance duty or return to base in the Balkans, they are continuing to drop their bombs in Iraq. The US and UK have conducted more than 200 multi-missile airstrikes against Iraq since January, following the punishing four-day December assault of Operation Desert Fox. At least 55 people are dead and more than 160 injured as a result.

There was a temporary pause in bombing raids in and around the US-British-imposed 'no-fly zone' in northern Iraq from 16 March until 2 April, during the military build-up preparatory to NATO's air war in Yugoslavia, but the raids soon began again. (In the southern zone, there was no halt.)

Interestingly, while Secretary of Defence William Cohen claims that the US strikes are 'in self-defence', there were no reports of unresponded-to Iraqi 'violations' during the pre-Yugoslavia bombing pause. That gave rise to much speculation that the Iraqi 'violations' or 'penetrations' [sic] of the no-fly zone were less pretext for than response to US attacks. This is particularly relevant given the Pentagon's vastly expanded rules of engagement. Under those post-Desert Fox arrangements, US pilots may choose to attack anytime they believe Iraq has threatened the patrol or violated the forbidden skies. The target can be any one of a long list of pre-selected sites, however far geographically or politically or militarily from the location of the alleged Iraqi transgression, and it can be hit long after the pilot deems the 'danger' over.

The political consequences for Iraq of the ending - however messy and uncertain - of NATO's Yugoslav air war remain uncertain, but the portents are not good. With helicopter gunships and ground troops (plus the 82nd Airborne paratroopers disguised as peacekeepers and home-rebuilders) replacing US bomber squadrons in the Balkans, the Pentagon will have more resources available for escalation in the Iraq-bombing campaign.

Some factors, though, may lean towards potential checks on US military efforts in Iraq. In the Arab world in particular, the cultivation of public support for NATO's 'pro-Muslim' war may allow a return of outrage, at least at the level of the street, towards continuing US attacks on Iraq. One result might be new cautions by Arab governments in providing military support to US-UK assaults.

What are the lessons of the Yugoslavia war that US policy wonks may find useful in Iraq? One regards support for the internal opposition.

NATO and the US now face the possibility of serious instability resulting from the new credibility of the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army, and the refusal to disarm it. (The KLA is supposed only to be 'demilitarised', stripped of its 'heavy' weapons, but the young and still rag-tag guerrilla force has few such weapons to give up.) The result may cause some Iraq policy-makers to rethink their support for and provision of funds and 'non-lethal' aid to the motley assortment of London- and Washington-based Iraqi oppositionists.

And what were the lessons of Iraq that proved so useful in NATO's war? The first might be the recognition that it is possible to carry out stealth bombing - where the strikes themselves, rather than the airplane's shape, go unannounced. NATO's high-profile bombing suddenly dropped off the global media's radar screens when the international agreement was about to be signed - many thought it had stopped altogether. But the bombing continued, albeit without the fanfare of publicity.

Now, with at least some of the world's Yugoslavia press corps returning home, it is likely that some modicum of additional attention might refocus on Iraq. Just in the last weeks of the Yugoslavia war, almost daily bombing raids brought destruction to economic and civilian targets.

On 25 May, Agence France-Presse reported the US bombing a communication site and destroying several 'civilian installations' in northern Iraq. Two days earlier, the agency reported two Iraqis injured in attacks on civilian installations and air defences in the north. The 12 May raids in the northern province of Nineveh killed 12 civilians and destroyed 250 sheep.

All remained hidden, either buried in the back pages of Yugo-saturated newspapers or ignored altogether.

More significantly, beginning on the same day as the Nineveh raids, 15,000 troops from NATO-member Turkey invaded northern Iraq, marching 12 miles over the border to 'prevent Kurdish rebel forces from assembling in the region'. US government spokespeople and the US press, usually finely attuned to humanitarian protection of Iraqi Kurds, had nothing to say.

And in the meantime, economic sanctions continue to slaughter up to 5,000 Iraqi civilians every month. But again, that isn't news. We can expect the Shea-Rubin 'Jamie Chorus' to have 'no comment'. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.