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Iraq: Baghdad Starts Air Links Through No-Fly Zones

Iraq has announced it will resume domestic passenger flights, including those to cities within no-fly zones patrolled by the United States and Britain. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at whether the flights face any hazards from clashes in the zones between U.S. and British warplanes and Iraqi air defenses.

Prague, 2 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq resumes domestic flights this weekend connecting Baghdad to Basra in the south and Mosul in the north. Both destinations are in the no-fly zones enforced by the United States and Britain since the 1991 Gulf War.

Transport Minister Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, who announced the resumption Monday (Oct 30), said airports in the northern and southern cities recently were repaired and the flights will use Russian-built Ilyushin aircraft still in the country. Most of Iraq's passenger fleet -- including its most modern planes -- are still abroad, where they were moved for safety before the Gulf War began.

The newly re-opened routes will traverse the no-fly zones even as U.S. and British warplanes continue to patrol them on a daily basis, often clashing with Iraqi air defenses. The two sides engaged in conflict as recently as yesterday (Wednesday), when Western aircraft bombed air defenses after being fired upon north of Mosul.

The Iraqi decision to resume passenger flights has met no resistance from the United States and Britain, which both said this week that they will not object so long as the flights are not for military use. A U.S. defense department spokesman said Washington does not see civilian flights as posing a threat to either people living in the no-fly zones or the Western warplanes patrolling them.

But Iraq's domestic flights may require some coordinating with the United States and Britain if the security of passengers is to be assured. U.S. State Department officials expressed precisely that concern this week. They said that, for safety reasons, they would want at least 48 hours advance notice from Baghdad for each flight.

To learn more about risks facing the domestic flights -- and prospects for reducing them -- RFE/RL spoke with Nigel Vinson, a military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Vinson says that if Iraq, the United States and Britain do not find a way to cooperate, the flights' safety will rest entirely upon the technology warplanes use to distinguish friends from foes. And that technology has a margin of error.

One example is the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet by a U.S. warship protecting oil tankers in the Gulf during the Iraq-Iran war. The warship mistook the plane for a warplane, killing all 290 people aboard.

Vinson says since that incident, the technology has improved but is still far from fail-safe.

"The incident that took place in 1988 was particularly significant because the U.S. ship was the most advanced in the American adventure [that is, military arsenal] at that time. Since that time, procedures have been tightened and technology has moved on. But there are still enormous problems concerning identifying friend or foe."

Vinson continues:

"The main problem from an aircraft perspective is that although you may receive a radar return which will classify an aircraft as a certain size and may even identify the type of aircraft, you can never be entirely sure what that aircraft is carrying and you certainly can't be sure where that aircraft has originated from."

That means that even though identification technology is getting better, decisions in tense military theaters still must be made hastily by pilots using partial information. And sometimes those decisions are wrong.

Vinson says the only sure guarantee against mistakes would be if Iraq, the United States and Britain agreed upon air corridors for the passenger flights. The accord, he adds, should be accompanied by guarantees the corridors would only be used for civilian purposes.

But for those kinds of agreements, greater trust would be needed than now exists among the parties. Iraq has repeatedly challenged the no-fly zones by seeking to fly military aircraft into them, and there is little assurance Baghdad would not seek to do the same using the cover of an air corridor. Vinson says:

"There have been a number of Iraqi military incursions of both the northern and southern no-fly zones. The U.S. and the UK, from a political perspective, could establish a position whereby they allow Iraqi civilian aircraft to use the air corridors. But they are aware that once they give one concession that it won't be long until you find military aircraft flying along these air corridors. So, I think the UK and U.S. will be extremely reluctant to allow Iraq to establish these air corridors."

Without an air corridor, the only other way to safeguard civilian planes fully would be if Iraq provides advance warning of each flight to the air patrols. But Vinson feels that, too, is unlikely to occur.

"It's not in the interest of the Iraqis to give any notice whatsoever. If an incident were to occur whereby the allies were to shoot down a commercial airliner, [then] from an Iraqi political perspective it would be seen as a victory, in a sense, against the UK and the U.S. and could have a profound effect on the future of the no-fly zones."

That suggests the domestic flights in Iraq have become the newest players in an already tense contest over the no-fly zones that shows no sign of resolution.

Iraq considers the no-fly zones a violation of its sovereignty and has repeatedly called for lifting them. The United States and Britain -- together with France, which later effectively withdrew from the project -- imposed the zones in 1991 to protect Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south. Iraq had used air power to crush rebellions in both areas following the Gulf War, killing large numbers of civilians.

In late 1998, Iraq began to challenge the air patrols militarily, and since then the no-fly zones have seen almost daily clashes. Iraq says more than 300 civilians have been killed by allied planes suppressing air defenses in the zones. The United States and Britain call that figure highly exaggerated but acknowledge some casualties.