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British Records on the Prewar Bombing of Iraq


As the London Times‘s Michael Smith has been reporting in multiple venues (e.g., “The War Before the War,” New Statesman, May 30, 2005), the best publicly available source at the moment for evidence of the scale of the pre-war bombing campaign launched by the American and British militaries around the second-half of April, 2002 to “put pressure” on the former regime in Baghdad is a series of “written answers” to “written questions” drafted in the name of the Scottish Liberal Democrat and House of Commons member, Sir Menzies Campbell.


(Readers with a tendency to poke their noses around electronic archives might take a look at the British Parliament’s Advanced Search Page and see what else they can find.—This is the very same tool that I just used to assemble the material that follows.)

As the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Menzies has been submitting a recurring set of very good questions to the Blair regime for a number of years—and in particular, to its Secretary of State for Defense, the last two of which have been John Reid (but only for the past couple of months), and before him, Geoffrey Hoon. (Recall that it was Geoff Hoon who, at the July 23, 2002 meeting of the Prime Minister and his top cabinet members and advisors, uttered the fateful phrase “spikes of activity,” as in “the US had already begun ‘spikes of activity’ to put pressure on the regime.” The exact nature and scale of these “spikes of activity,” these bombing raids over Iraqi territory, being one of the chapters in the story of the American and British aggression that still remains to be written, and that it wouldn’t hurt for us to reveal with as much exactitude as we can command.)

Typically, Sir Menzies’ written questions have taken a form such as the following (House of Commons, February 6, 2002):

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence on how many occasions (a) coalition aircraft and (b) UK aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone in Iraq have (i) detected violations of the no-fly zones, (ii) a direct threat to coalition aircraft and (iii) released ordnance, in each quarter since January 1999 to date stating for each quarter the tonnage of ordnance released; in percentage terms what has been (A) the nature of the violation detected, (B) the nature of the threat detected and (C) the category of target attacked; and if he will make a statement.

Equally typical, at least in those cases in which the written answers are developed at length, the Defense Ministry comes back with a response such as this (also February 6, 2002):

All targets attacked in self defence by coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones are military elements of the Iraqi Integrated Air Defence System.

On the rare occasions where ordnance has failed to hit the intended target, it has almost invariably landed on open ground. It is extremely difficult to assess collateral damage, or numbers of civilian casualties caused by the remainder, despite the painstaking Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) that the coalition carries out every time ordnance is released. However, it is possible to demonstrate categorically that many of the Iraqi claims of collateral damage and civilian casualties are untrue. There have, for example, been several instances when Iraqis have claimed civilian casualties when coalition aircraft have not been flying, or when BDA has confirmed that only military targets were hit. Indeed, there is good evidence that, on several occasions where Saddam has made claims of civilian casualties, it has been caused by Iraqi artillery shells or missiles, recklessly fired at coalition aircraft, falling to earth in built up areas.

In all cases of failure to hit the intended target by ordnance released from UK aircraft, the failure was caused by ordnance malfunction. We do not hold information for coalition partners.

Coalition aircraft only attack military targets in self-defence. We make every effort to select targets and to employ precision guided munitions in order to minimise the possibility of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Despite these efforts, regrettably, on occasions civilians may have suffered as a result of coalition activity. However, this would be completely avoided if the Iraqis desisted from attacking coalition aircraft.

(By the way, should any of you ever run across a response in which the targets of an American or British attack are not reported to have been attacked in “self-defense” and with the most militarily necessary and proportionate of intentions, be sure to let me know. Because I for one have never found any.)

Returning to issue of the moment, namely the evidence of prewar “spikes of activity” over Iraq: Among the “written questions” that Sir Menzies asked in February, 2002, was for a report on the “tonnage of ordnance released” over Iraqi territory by American and British warplanes for each calendar-year quarter from 1999 through 2001. (“No-fly Zones (Iraq),” House of Commons, February 6, 2002.)

The written answer to this specific question came from a Mr. Ingram, and asserted the following about the “tonnage of ordnance released by coalition aircraft in the no-fly zone, by quarter”:

—- 1999 —-
————– Coalition / U.K.
First quarter — 120.5 / 31.5
Second quarter — 79 / 21
Third quarter — 135 / 23.5
Fourth quarter — 45 / 12.5

Total ———- 379.5 / 88.5

—- 2000 —-
————– Coalition / U.K.
First quarter — 35 / 3.5
Second quarter — 45.5 / 6
Third quarter — 42.5 / 5
Fourth quarter — 32 / 6

Total ———- 155 / 20.5

—- 2001 —-
————– Coalition / U.K.
First quarter — 50.5 / 8.5
Second quarter — 11.5 / 2.5
Third quarter — 39 / 13
Fourth quarter — 6 / 1

Total ———- 107 / 25

To sum it up: In the 36 months prior to the now notorious “spikes of activity” year 2002, the “coalition” (overwhelmingly the British and the Americans—perhaps with a touch of Turkey tossed in along the way for a little spice) dropped a total of 641.5 tons of bombs on Iraqi territory, of which 134 tons happened to be dropped by British warplanes, with virtually all of the remaining 507.5 tons having been dropped by American warplanes. This averages out to 17.8 tons of bombs per month, every month, from January, 1999 through December, 2001. Of course, we know from the quarterly breakdown reported above that the first and third quarters of 1999, for example, were spikier than the second and fourth quarters of 2001. Still. These averages are pretty revealing, I think. What they show us is that at no extended period of time during the 51 months prior to the launching of the ground invasion in March, 2003 were the Iraqis free of the threat or actual dropping of bombs upon their territory. And while it is true that the tonnage of bombs dropped during a handful of months immediately before the ground invasion did represent “spikes of activity” relative to the month-by-month average overall, it clearly did not represent the adoption of a new kind of policy toward Iraq (e.g., state violence under the Bush regime, as opposed to peace under Clinton’s)—the American and British warplanes having violated Iraqi airspace and bombed Iraqi territory quite relentlessly for the previous 12 years.

On March 11, 2002, Sir Menzies posed a similar set of questions (“Iraq,” House of Commons, March 11, 2002), but now zeroing-in on the tonnage of bombs dropped over the southern “No-Fly” zone by American and British warplanes during the previous two months of January and February, 2002.

Mr. Ingram’s reply: “Coalition aircraft in the southern NFZ released 9 tons of ordnance in January, and none in February.”

Then again on November 27, 2002, and, finally, on March 10, 2003, Sir Menzies posed the same set of questions. The cumulative responses to these last two sets of questions have provided the data that Michael Smith has been reporting. But permit me to present them for everyone here as one combined set, acknowledging that in the form in which they are archived in the written question-and-answer format by the House of Commons, they comprise no less than three separate written responses.

—- 2002 —-
——- Coalition
January: 9
February: 0
March: 0
April: 0.3
May: 7.3
June: 10.4
July: 9.5
August: 14.1
September: 54.6
October: 17.7
November: 33.6
December: 53.2

—- 2003 —-
——— Coalition
January: 23.9
February: unavailable

What these numbers show us is that, if we somewhat arbitrarily adopt May, 2002, as the starting point for evaluating the prewar “spikes of activity” over the skies of Iraq, then for the three non-calendar-year quarters that comprised these 9 months (i.e., May, 2002, through the following January, 2003), a total of 224.3 tons of bombs were dropped upon Iraq, an average of 24.9 tons per month—considerably less tonnage overall than was raining down from the American- and British-dominated skies over Iraq during the 1999 calendar year, though clearly more than double the tonnage in 2001.

Aside from U.S. military records of a kind to which we have no access at present—though presumably members of Congress would, particularly using their subpoena power—the most extensive public records of prewar American and British bombing activity to which we do have access are (a) the Iraqi documents filed with the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General (about which, see “No Memo Required,” ZNet, July 1; and “‘Spikes of Activity’,” ZNet, July 4); and (b) written answers of the kind that I’ve just sampled from the British Secretary of State for Defense to Menzies Campbell of the House of Commons. Doubtless, there are more of the latter category to be found. Perhaps a hell of a lot more.

At this point, however, what we need are members of Congress (and Parliament) with the subpoena power to acquire U.S. (or U.K.) military records of American and British violations of Iraqi airspace, and out-and-out attacks against Iraqi territory.

Anyone out there happen to have one or more “friends” in high places?

Advanced Search Page, British Parliament

House of Commons Hansard Written Answers to Sir Menzies Campbell’s Written Questions, February 6, 2002
House of Commons Hansard Written Answers to Sir Menzies Campbell’s Written Questions, March 11, 2002
House of Commons Hansard Written Answers to Sir Menzies Campbell’s Written Questions, November 27, 2002
House of Commons Hansard Written Answers to Sir Menzies Campbell’s Written Questions, March 10, 2003

Impeach ‘Em All, ZNet, November 13, 2004
The Blair Era, ZNet, April 30, 2005
The Downing Street Memos, ZNet, June 15, 2005
No Memo Required, ZNet, July 1, 2005
“Spikes of Activity”, ZNet, July 4, 2005
British Records on the Prewar Bombing of Iraq, ZNet, July 5, 2005

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