Global Policy Forum

Containing Iraq: A Forgotten War


By Thomas E. Ricks

Washington Post
October 25, 2000

Most of the year, Bernard Yosten pilots Boeing 727s for American Airlines out of Miami. But in mid-September, he came here for two weeks of flying Air Force F-16 fighters in the "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq, where he was shot at with both antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.

The Iraqi fire "was pretty damned close," reported Yosten, who has since gone back to hauling tourists around the Caribbean.

To a surprising degree, Operation Northern Watch, as the Air Force calls this mission, is conducted by part-timers. Other members of Yosten's Alabama Air National Guard unit on temporary duty here usually fly for Delta, United, Southwest, Northwest, Federal Express and United Parcel Service.

Northern Watch is characteristic of U.S. military missions in the post-Cold War era: It is small-scale, open-ended and largely ignored by the American people. Even though U.S. warplanes are routinely dropping bombs on a foreign country, it has not been an issue in the presidential campaign and has hardly been mentioned by the candidates.

Partly because Turkey and Arab allies want to keep their assistance quiet, the Defense Department makes public little information about the joint U.S.-British effort to prohibit Iraqi aircraft from flying over northern and southern Iraq, thereby protecting Kurds in the North and Shiite Muslims in the South who oppose Saddam Hussein's rule. But behind the official veil, the no-fly operation has undergone major changes and embarrassments that might have made headlines if it had a higher profile:

* After patrolling aggressively last year, in a manner that one pilot says was intended to draw antiaircraft fire, the Air Force has pulled back and is avoiding known antiaircraft emplacements. Top commanders recently approved an order formalizing the de-escalation.

* The Air Force also has stopped dropping "cement bombs," emptied of explosives, on antiaircraft batteries near mosques and other sensitive sites. For the most part, it now leaves those batteries alone.

* The Turkish government has interrupted the flying schedule several times, sometimes to bomb Kurdish villages in Iraq and sometimes to protest America's refusal to sell Turkey certain precision-guided bombs.

* U.S. aircraft mistakenly bombed and strafed a group of Iraqi shepherds last year because intelligence analysts misinterpreted satellite imagery and thought a water trough for sheep was a missile launcher.

Iraq says the U.S. airstrikes have killed about 300 people, mostly civilians, since December 1998. American officials admit that there have been casualties but say they do not know how many. Ian Roxborough, a historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, calls this "fire-and-forget foreign policy," after the modern munitions that help make such an operation possible.

But if Northern Watch isn't particularly controversial, neither is it particularly popular. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, conservative Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and liberal Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) took turns questioning it, with Thurmond calling it "a failure."

As the United States enters its 10th year of confronting Hussein, military strategists are frustrated, too. "I no longer have any sense of what the 'containment' of Iraq is all about," said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now a military expert at Boston University. "We just fly missions and drop bombs from time to time because we've been doing it for 10 years and no one can stop us from doing so."

Even some of the fighter pilots who have flown Northern Watch said they do not understand why it continues. "I think almost everybody thinks it is a waste of time," said a National Guard pilot who has done four tours of duty here.

There are some indications that the operation may end, but not soon and not because it has achieved any enduring success. Support for sanctions on Iraq appears to be waning both in the Arab world and in Europe. Only Britain continues to patrol the no-fly zones with the United States, operating reconnaissance aircraft that do not carry weapons.

'A Certain Level of Combat'

A day of Operation Northern Watch, which is conducted from Incirlik Air Base, a few miles east of the Turkish city of Adana, begins with the roar of F-15C fighters emerging from a hardened shelter. The pilots have been briefed on intelligence, weather and the day's mission.

"Puggsley," an Air Force captain from Alexandria who asked that his real name not be used, climbs into his F-15, which bristles with weaponry: heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles near his wingtips, bigger radar-guided Sparrows on pylons closer in and four even bigger AMRAAM missiles under his fuselage. He taxies to the arming area, where the missiles are activated, and screams down the runway.

But the Air Force approach to patrolling the skies of Iraq involves much more. The fighters are followed by an RC-135 "Rivet Joint" reconnaissance jet, a Boeing 707 laden with surveillance gear. Next come two Navy EA-6B electronic jammers, then some of the Alabama Air National Guard F-16s carrying missiles to home in on Iraqi radar. One of the Alabamians flies a jet borrowed from the Colorado Air National Guard that says "Mile-High Militia" on its tail. The final plane in the 25-aircraft "package" is a big KC-10 tanker, a flying gas station.

As the pilots head east toward Iraq, the Syrian border is just 20 miles to their right. Some of the pilots believe that the Syrian government, which can see them on radar, reports their movements to Baghdad, giving Iraqi gunners about an hour's warning. It takes that long for the American planes to travel 400 miles to the ROZ, the "restricted operating zone" over eastern Turkey where the pilots get an aerial refueling and then turn south into Iraq.

The pilots disagree about whether they are truly in combat. "If I can shoot, and if I'm getting shot at, yes, it's combat," argues "Sluggo," a lieutenant colonel from Charlevoix, Mich., who also asked that his name not be used.

But Lt. Col. Dave "Mega" Watt scoffs. Even though the Iraqis shoot to kill, says the sandy-haired veteran of 17 years in F-16s, "the threat isn't that high. You're probably in higher danger on the Beltway."

Yosten, the American Airlines pilot, comes down in the middle. "It's not full-blown combat, but it is a certain level of combat," he says. "It's a new type of mission."

'De-Emphasis on Ordnance'

Most patrols last four to eight hours, with the fighters and jammers flying over Iraq and then darting back to the ROZ to refuel two or three times. In 16,000 sorties since the beginning of 1997, Air Force pilots have launched more than 1,000 bombs and missiles against more than 250 targets in northern Iraq.

But they are much less likely to drop bombs and shoot missiles than they were a year ago. Brig. Gen. Bob D. DuLaney, the American commander of Operation Northern Watch since October 1999, has backed away from the confrontational tactics that the Air Force used for most of last year.

In early 1999, said Mike Horn, who flew F-15s in two tours of duty in Northern Watch, "sometimes we flew in such a way that we provoked them to shoot at us." Under the operation's rules of engagement, they could not bomb unless the Iraqis fired upon them first.

One sure-fire way to get the Iraqis to start shooting, Horn recalled, was to buzz a heavily defended area north of the city of Mosul. "F-16 guys would pop flares over Saddam Dam, which makes a big smoke trail, and the Iraqis would open up," said Horn, who has left the Air Force and now flies for American Airlines.

"That's not my style," DuLaney said in his office just a few steps from the runway at Incirlik. Under his command, he added, there has been a "big de-emphasis on ordnance."

Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the top U.S. commander in Europe, codified the change this month in Operations Order No. 2, only the second general order governing the campaign. "We're not looking for a fight," Ralston said. "But we will do everything in our power to protect our air crews."

The change has produced some grumbling among pilots who miss the more aggressive posture. DuLaney said they lack "a complete understanding of our mission," which he argued is a success as long as it deters Iraq from crushing the rebellious Kurds in the North. "Every day we're here is a day that Saddam's forces can't attack," he said.

For more than a year, the Air Force has declined to release information about the number or type of missiles and bombs it unleashes on Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the clampdown protects pilots. But the pilots, along with others here, say it has more to do with the sensitivities of U.S. allies and the message the Air Force wants to emphasize. "If all you do is talk about the number of bombs you've dropped, then people think that's your mission," DuLaney said.

DuLaney, a soft-spoken Texan, also said changes have been made to reduce the chance of repeating a mistake that killed many Iraqi civilians on May 12, 1999. In that incident, an F-15E launched a 3,000-pound bomb into a shepherd's camp after intelligence analysts--perhaps stretched by the Kosovo air campaign going on at the same time--looked at blurry satellite imagery and misidentified a metal tank that was used for watering sheep. They thought it was a surface-to-air missile launcher.

The mistake was compounded when F-16 pilots, believing the surrounding tents to be camouflaged military facilities, swept the area with their guns. Iraq says the attack killed 19 people and wounded 46 others. Villagers told a visiting Washington Post reporter in June that relatives ran to the site after the first explosion, only to fall victim to the strafing.

"We put some things in place that will eliminate those kinds of errors," DuLaney said, without elaborating. "I seriously doubt whether we've hurt any civilians since I've been up here."

The dilemma, he added, is that most antiaircraft weaponry in northern Iraq has been placed next to mosques or populated areas. Last year, the Air Force tried to hit some of those emplacements with bombs filled with cement, not explosives, to soften the impact. DuLaney said that tactic has been abandoned because a bomb could still go awry and kill civilians or damage a mosque, which he said would play into the hands of Hussein.

"If I'm going to err, I'm going to err on the side of right," he said.

'They Morph Into Warriors'

One reason the Air Force has been able to sustain the operation for a decade is that many personnel come from the National Guard and Reserves, which make up 20 percent to 40 percent of U.S. air crews. (There are 1,176 Americans assigned to the operation, plus 162 British service members operating Jaguar reconnaissance aircraft. The Turkish military provides some ground staff.)

"We got Alabama in here now," said Col. Maurice H. Forsyth, commander of the air component of the operation. "Terre Haute's coming out in four days."

Surprisingly, there is general agreement that the Guard and Reserves have better pilots than the regular Air Force, which may be one reason the United States has not lost a pilot or plane despite flying about 250,000 sorties over Iraq since 1991.

Reservists sometimes are denigrated by active-duty troops as weekend warriors. But here, the Guard and Reserve pilots are the seasoned fighter jocks who lord it over the green, active-duty pilots. "The majority of them [on active duty] are what we call punks," Yosten said.

Watt, commander of the active-duty 522nd Fighter Squadron, said that of his 12 pilots now at Incirlik, nine have been flying the F-16 for less than two years. He uses the mission to help season these newcomers. "I tell them to check out the triple A [antiaircraft artillery], see the muzzle flashes and the airbursts," he said. "It's good for them to see it, get that bile in the back of your throat."

Contrast that with Col. Scott "Zapper" Mayes of the Alabama Air National Guard, who was dodging antiaircraft fire over Hanoi before most of the active-duty pilots were born. The pilots under his command have an average of 2,000 hours flying F-16s, compared with 100 for some of the active-duty pilots.

As commander of the fighter wing closest to the Atlanta airport, a major airline hub, Mayes has a waiting list to get into his unit. When commercial fliers come to Incirlik, he said, "They morph into warriors."

Still, some are dismayed by what they have seen. Horn said that on more than one occasion he and his comrades received a radio message that "there was a TSM inbound"--that is, a "Turkish Special Mission" heading into Iraq. Following standard orders, the Americans turned their planes around and flew back to Turkey.

"You'd see Turkish F-14s and F-16s inbound, loaded to the gills with munitions," he said. "Then they'd come out half an hour later with their munitions expended."

When the Americans flew back into Iraqi airspace, he recalled, they would see "burning villages, lots of smoke and fire."

The Turkish and U.S. militaries last year established separate air lanes so that U.S. aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone would not cross paths with Turkish planes bombing alleged Kurdish terrorist bases. Turkey has been fighting for years against the PKK, a Kurdish group seeking an independent homeland in the border region between Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

Another source of friction has been the U.S. refusal to sell Turkey a particular precision-guided missile coveted by the Turkish military. As a result, since spring, Turkey has refused permission for the U.S. military to bring that weapon to Incirlik for use against Iraq, officials said.

DuLaney insisted that since he took command a year ago, "the Turks have been wonderful" and have not blocked any U.S. flights. "Relationships are better than in '99," he said.

Asked about interruptions of the operation, Baki Ilkin, Turkey's ambassador to Washington, said, "I don't know every detail about the operations. . . . I know that from time to time, the operations are suspended for one reason or another."

'All the Comforts of Home'

When the day's mission is over, the pilots give the planes back to the mechanics, turn in their 9mm pistols and attend a debriefing.

Most pilots prefer flying the southern no-fly zone, which is three times as large as the northern one, and so makes aircraft movements less predictable to Iraqi gunners. But the ground crews prefer it here, where the weather is cooler and where, unlike in Saudi Arabia, they are frequently allowed off base.

When they go off duty, some pilots work out in the base's gym. Others while away the evenings drinking what one happily called "mega-gallons of beer." On a recent evening in the "tent city" where most troops passing through here live, maintenance crew chiefs from the Alabama Air National Guard were barbecuing chicken and ribs. "We're doing covered dish tonight," said Tech. Sgt. Dave Shows.

About 1,200 people live in the tent city, something of a misnomer because the tents are now semi-permanent, air-conditioned structures with four or five bedrooms, a small living room with a TV and VCR, and a kitchenette. "We pretty much have all the comforts of home," said Master Sgt. Sidney Burk, a maintenance specialist with the 71st Fighter Squadron.

After dinner, many head to a "morale tent" to use 15 computer terminals dedicated to their e-mail needs. About half the troops on temporary duty use the terminals every day. The biggest complaint they have, said Marine Lt. Col. Rick Shamburger, commanding officer of a Marine Reserve unit from Stewart, N.Y., is that "you have to wait sometimes five or 10 minutes to go online."

The morale tent also lends out video and digital cameras. Some troops use them to tape themselves reading bedtime stories, which they send home to their kids.

At the end of the tent is a travel desk that offers weekend getaways. One of the most popular is the seven-hour run to the topless beach at Alanya, on the Mediterranean. One tent over, Lt. Col. C.B. Goodwin, the Northern Watch chaplain, offers a competing excursion to Antakya, also known as Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. It is closer but apparently less popular than the topless beach.

Many of the troops get off base one or two nights a week, with most heading for the street they call "the Alley," just outside the gates. The shops there overflow with Persian carpets, ornate brassware and leather coats--items aimed at a mature, prosperous, married force. "My wife keeps sending over orders," sighed "Bob," a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot on his third Northern Watch tour.

The walls at Enver & Sedat's, a jewelry shop dripping with gold chains, are covered with photos and certificates of appreciation from the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, the Virginia Air National Guard, even the Maryland State Police. Down the street, Angel's Clothing shop sells a T-shirt that lists the "Top 10 Reasons You Know It Is Time to Leave Turkey," which mainly involve lusting for one's spouse.

What is missing, for the most part, are the girlie bars and discos that surrounded foreign bases in the Vietnam era. To be sure, there is one sign promising a Saturday night performance by "Eight Russia Strip Girls." But most of the troops out here on short rotations seem more intent on picking up Christmas presents.

More Information on the No-Fly Zones
More Information on the Iraq Crisis


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