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Iraq: U.S. Forces Intensify Air Campaign Against Insurgents

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. warplanes are dropping increasingly heavy bombs on suspected guerrilla targets in Iraq as anti-insurgency operations pick up strength. Recent sorties saw fighter jets striking near Kirkuk and Ba'qubah, a restive town north of Baghdad. RFE/RL looks at the air campaign and its targets.

Prague, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the number of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq grows, so does Washington's determination to crush what increasingly appears to be a well-organized insurgency.

U.S. President George W. Bush restated that commitment in London yesterday. He praised the British government for joining his administration in toppling Saddam Hussein and said the coalition has no intention of now being ousted by guerrilla fighters. "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he said.

He spoke as the United States continues to step up its intensive anti-insurgency campaign in Iraq. The campaign, which began last week, saw U.S. fighter jets flying off a carrier in the Persian Gulf yesterday to drop 450-kilogram bombs on targets near the northern town of Kirkuk. Other fighter jets dropped 900-kilogram bombs around Ba'qubah, a restive town some 65 kilometers north of Baghdad.

At the same time, U.S. ground troops attacked facilities used by guerrillas near Hussein's hometown of Tikrit with mortars, tank fire, and helicopter-launched missiles. And in Baghdad, U.S. forces kept up nighttime counterstrikes against insurgents there.

Attacks across Iraq have killed 192 U.S. and coalition soldiers since 1 May.

Analysts say the growing use by the United States of bombs weighing up to 900 kilograms marks a dramatic escalation in the U.S. response to the guerrilla war. Such bombs are among the heaviest conventional weapons in the U.S. arsenal. They were frequently used in the March-April war but not again in Iraq until last week.

Andrew Brookes, a former Royal Air Force commander now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says few details are publicly known about the targets of the air strikes due to intelligence concerns. But press reports have suggested they range from training camps to large buildings suspected of serving as guerrilla safe houses or weapons storage sites.

Brookes says U.S. forces appear to be using such heavy bombs for two reasons. First, they make up the largest part of the U.S. weapons inventory in the region and are more readily available than more sophisticated and lighter, laser-guided bombs. Secondly, they send a simple message that the U.S. can deploy enormous force.

"At the end of the day, the good old-fashioned 2,000-pound [900-kilogram] bombs, the 1,000-pound [450-kilogram] bombs, they are still the best thing in town for either getting in through concrete and making a great impact on a large building or some such [other target]," he said. "So, if you want to go out there and hit a camp, for example, then this is still the way to make an impact and send a message."

Similarly, U.S. forces deployed a satellite-guided missile over the weekend against what Washington described as an insurgent's training camp on a river island west of Kirkuk. It was the first time a missile had been used in Iraq since Washington declared major combat over in May.

Yet, if part of Washington's intention is, indeed, to send a message to the guerrillas, some air-power experts like Brookes warn that dropping heavy bombs also brings a high risk of civilian casualties. And any such casualties can build resentment against U.S. forces, which will only help to recruit new insurgents. "[This is] aerial bombardment in an internal peacekeeping role. Many people would argue that this is rather counterproductive because the big bomb you are talking about is not precise," Brookes said.

He added, "Its impact is over hundreds of meters, and you have to be very careful that in blowing away the bad guy you don't kill a lot of women and children walking alongside, whose families become so incensed that you get more terrorist bombers than you had before."

Some Iraqi political leaders have expressed similar concerns in recent days, saying Washington risks losing sympathy among the population as a result of its tougher security operations.

Jalal Talibani, the current rotating head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, said on a visit to Ankara yesterday, "The United States has brought peace and freedom to Iraq, but they are losing sympathy day by day since they are now an occupying force." He said peacekeeping activities must be turned over to the Iraqis themselves.

The United States announced last weekend that it wants to hand over political power to a sovereign Iraqi government by 30 June. But Washington also says it expects U.S. soldiers will remain in the country long beyond that date as Iraqi units continue to be formed and trained for security duties.

As U.S. forces step up the anti-insurgency campaign, U.S. authorities yesterday offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture or killing of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a top former lieutenant of Saddam Hussein suspected of organizing anti-U.S. attacks. U.S. officials also confirmed yesterday that they recently used a satellite-guided missile to destroy his home near Tikrit.

The reward offer, which makes al-Duri the No. 2 most-wanted man in Iraq after Hussein himself, comes as top U.S. military officials say former regime loyalists -- and not militants entering Iraq from other countries -- pose the greatest threat to their forces.

U.S. officials have estimated there are currently about 5,000 fighters operating against U.S. and U.S.-allied troops in Iraq.