The RAF and US aircraft doubled the rate at which they were dropping bombs on Iraq in 2002 in an attempt to provoke Saddam Hussein into giving the allies an excuse for war, new evidence has shown.
The attacks were intensified from May, six months before the United Nations resolution that Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, argued gave the coalition the legal basis for war. By the end of August the raids had become a full air offensive.
It was a huge air assault: Approximately 100 US and British planes flew from Kuwait into Iraqi airspace. At least seven types of aircraft were part of this massive operation, including US F-15 Strike Eagles and Royal Air Force Tornado ground-attack planes. They dropped precision-guided munitions on Saddam Hussein's major western air-defense facility, clearing the path for Special Forces helicopters that lay in wait in Jordan. Earlier attacks had been carried out against Iraqi command and control centers, radar detection systems, Revolutionary Guard units, communication centers and mobile air-defense systems. The Pentagon's goal was clear: Destroy Iraq's ability to resist. This was war.
But there was a catch: The war hadn't started yet, at least not officially. This was September 2002--a month before Congress had voted to give President Bush the authority he used to invade Iraq, two months before the United Nations brought the matter to a vote and more than six months before "shock and awe" officially began.
Iraq continues to target American and British warplanes patrolling the northern and southern zones of the country, but the skirmishing is unlikely to provoke a U.S. invasion, Pentagon officials and military analysts say.
The exception might be if the Iraqis kill or capture an American or British pilot. Such an event would be a serious provocation, a senior Defense official said Thursday. The official stopped short of saying that would trigger a U.S. attack against Iraq.
Whitehall officials have admitted privately that the "no-fly" patrols, conducted by RAF and US aircraft from bases in Kuwait, are designed to weaken Iraq's air defence systems and have nothing to do with their stated original purpose of defending the marsh Arabs and the Sh'ia population of southern Iraq.
"The figures require further explanation. It appears that there has been a marked increase in the destructive power of the bombs dropped while the number of recorded threats has remained about the same", Mr Campbell said yesterday.
He added: "The inference is that these operations have little to do with humanitarian purposes but are being carried out to soften up Iraq air defence systems. There must be a risk that escalation of this kind could provoke wider military action at a time when the inspectors still appear to be able to carry out their work."
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