[by Nicholas Watt, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Suzanne Goldenberg in Baghdad]
Britain and the United States have all but fired the first shots of the second Gulf war by dramatically extending the range of targets in the “no-fly zones” over Iraq to soften up the country for an allied ground invasion.
As Baghdad threatened to stop destroying its Samoud 2 missiles if the US presses ahead with its invasion plans, allied pilots have attacked surface-to-surface missile systems and are understood to have hit multiple-launch rockets.
Targets hit in recent days include the Ababil-100, a Soviet-designed surface-to-air missile system adapted to hit targets on the ground, and the Astros 2 ground rocket launcher with a range of up to 56 miles. These would be used to defend Iraq in the event of an invasion or to attack allied troops stationed in Kuwait.
Britain and the US insist publicly that the rules for enforcing the no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq have not changed – that pilots only open fire if they are targeted. But privately defense officials admit that there has been an aggressive upping of the ante in recent weeks to weaken Iraqi defenses ahead of a ground invasion.
Analysts confirm there has been an intensification of what is known as “the undeclared war”.
The allied action will prompt allegations that Britain and the US have unilaterally changed the rules of the no-fly zones. These zones were established after the last Gulf war to protect Shias in the south and Kurds in the north.
John Warden, a retired US air force colonel who was an architect of the 1991 Gulf war air campaign, gave a taste of the change in tactics when he said: “We have added a new category of targets, and those were some of the Iraqi multiple rocket launchers and some of their relatively short range surface-to-surface missiles.”
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the US Lexington Institute, told Reuters: “The US military is taking advantage of the no-fly zones to prepare the battle space for war. There’s been a sporadic war occurring in the air over Iraq for a dozen years now. This merely ratchets up the intensity.”
The intensification of the Anglo-American attacks is likely to be seized on by Iraq, which has long complained that Britain and the US have abused the no-fly zones.
Believing that its hand has been strengthened by its decision to comply with UN demands to destroy its Samoud 2 missiles, Iraq said that it would call a halt to the destruction if the US presses ahead with its invasion plans.
Speaking after the destruction of 10 missiles over the weekend, Saddam Hussein’s scientific adviser, Lieutenant General Amer al-Saadi, said: “If it turns out at an early stage during this month that America is not going the legal way, then why should we continue?”
The intensification of the attacks in the no-fly zones appears to show that Britain and the US are determined to follow the military route, despite the continuing debate at the United Nations.
The bombing is likely to cause renewed tension with France and Germany, which have both argued that it is inappropriate to prepare for war until the UN has decided that military action is necessary.
Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, told BBC’s Breakfast with Frost: “It is for the inspectors to write a report saying ‘We can’t work any more’. Are we in such a situation? No. Do we need a second resolution? No. Are we going to oppose a second resolution? Yes, as are the Russians and many other countries.”
Figures released by the US central command show that British and US aircraft have stepped up their bombing over the past few weeks.
This year alone they have attacked Iraqi targets more than 40 times.
In the past week, they have attacked Iraqi targets three times. On Thursday they attacked a missile site and communications system near Basra.
On Friday they bombed three mobile air defense early warning radars and a surface-to-air missile system near An Nasiriyah, approximately 170 miles southwest of Baghdad.
On Saturday, British and US aircraft attacked military communication sites and a mobile radar in the same location.
Last month British and US aircraft attacked the Ababil-100 missile site near Basra, where surface-to-air missiles adapted to hit ground targets were located, according to US central command.
The US says that they bombed the targets in response to the Iraqis moving the missiles and air defense below the 33rd parallel marking the northern end of the southern no-fly zone.