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January 20, 2008

From Four a Week to Four a Day – the Air Surge in Iraq

Posted in: Afghanistan,Iraq,Uncategorized

I wanted to begin tonight with a reminder of the power and truth spoken by Martin Luther King to the forces of war and empire in his day. May we learn – once again – to speak with such clarity on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Imagine what Dr. King would say about our current air war in Iraq. Remember those 40,000 lbs of bombs we dropped on Al Jabour, a southern suburb of Baghdad two weeks ago … you know, the ones a spokesman told AP was "one of the largest air-strikes since the onset of the war"?

It seems we weren’t getting the full story. Badger at Missing Links points to reports that:

Radio Sawa broadcast on December 11 the good news from the American forces that the regions of Arab Jabour and Al-Buaitha had been definitively cleared of the last vestiges of AlQaeda. Here’s what their website reported that day:

Joseph Inge, fourth brigade, third American infantry division, said his forces with the aid of the Awakening forces had been able to clear out the last strongholds of AlQaeda in the regions of Arab Jabour and Al-Buaitha south of Baghdad. He told Radio Sawa: "We have secured the area by freeing it from the threat of AlQaeda, with the assistance of local citizens". And Captain Inge called on the families that had fled to return to their homes in those areas, promising every type of support and assistance to those families.

In fact, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division Public Affairs team even released a video on December 26 of the celebration of the opening of the new Governance Center in Al Jabour which you can watch here.

Apparently, the support Inge was mentioning included a few hours warning a week later when these families given leaflets telling them to leave their homes (one assumes that they did not deliver these leaflets to the “bad guys”?) so the US forces could bomb the Al Qaeda forces – the same AQ forces they had just "freed" al Jabour from. (confused? me too!)

And the aftermath?

Many residents who escaped were unable to return to their homes, but some who did return affirmed the destruction of their homes and agricultural lands, while the American forces and the Iraqi government have released no report on the killed and wounded or on material damage.

Reports of casualties from this new "shock and awe" are so mixed that no one is able to sort out whether or how many civilians were killed in this air strike – and since we don’t count Iraqi civilians killled during the occupation, it seems we’ll never have a clearer picture.

Not counting civilians could also describe the latest booyah report from the Washington Post about the “surge” in the air war in Iraq.

The U.S. military conducted more than five times as many airstrikes in Iraq last year as it did in 2006… The U.S.-led coalition dropped 1,447 bombs on Iraq last year, an average of nearly four a day, compared with 229 bombs, or about four each week, in 2006…

The greater reliance on air power has raised concerns from human rights groups, which say that 500-pound and 2,000-pound munitions threaten civilians, especially when dropped in residential neighborhoods where insurgents mix with the population. …

"The Iraqi population remains at risk of harm during these operations," said Eliane Nabaa, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. "The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian character of an area."*

UNAMI estimates that more than 200 civilian deaths resulted from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq from the beginning of April to the end of last year, when U.S. forces began to significantly increase the strikes to coordinate with the expansion of ground troops.

Note the following from the WaPo article as well:

The Marine Corps keeps its own statistics for airstrikes in western Iraq but could not provide 2007 data.

According to the AP last August:

Iraq Body Count, a London-based, anti-war research group that monitors Iraqi war deaths, says the step-up in air attacks appears to have been accompanied by an increase in Iraqi civilian casualties from air strikes. Based on media reports, it counts a recent average of 50 such deaths per month.

The Air Force itself does not maintain such data.

The same AP article reported:

The demand for air support is heavy. On one recent day, at a briefing attended by a reporter, it was noted that 48 requests for air support were filled, but 16 went unmet.

The Air Force plans to deploy 170 Predators and 70 Reapers over the next three years. "It is possible that in our lifetime we will be able to run a war without ever leaving the US," Lt Col David Branham told the New York Times.

The result of the stepped up air war, according to the London-based organization Iraq Body Count, is an increase in civilian casualties. A Lancet study of "excess deaths" caused by the Iraq war found that air attacks were responsible for 13% of the deaths — 76,000 as of June 2006 — and that 50% of the deaths of children under 15 were caused by air strikes. (emph added)

As the use of air strikes has increased over the last several months, we can assume that these civilian casualties have as well – but of course, we’re not counting them.

The Pentagon is counting and adding more support than ever to the air war. Conn Hallinan at Foreign Policy in Focus notes:

Balad, which currently conducts 10,000 air operations a week, is strengthening runways to handle the increase in air activity. Col. David Reynolds told the AP, "We would like to get to be a field like Langley, if you will." The Langley field in Virginia is one of the Air Force’s biggest and most sophisticated airfields.

The Air Force certainly appears to be settling in for a long war. "Until we can determine that the Iraqis have got their air force to significant capability," says Lt Gen. Gary North, the regional air commander, "I think the coalition will be here to support that effort."

The Iraqi air force is virtually non-existent. It has no combat aircraft and only a handful of transports.

(By the way, the Balad air base has it’s own web site where you too can read about the number of Airmen who have reached the million gallon mark of gas pumped into fighter jets and are invited to join the chaplain in “Let’s Worship.”)

The same patterns are seen in Afghanistan where WaPo reports:

In Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO bombings picked up in the middle of 2006, coalition airstrikes reached 3,572 last year, more than double the total for 2006 and more than 20 times the number in 2005. …

Human rights groups estimate that Afghan civilian casualties caused by airstrikes tripled to more than 300 in 2007, fueling fears that such aggressive bombardment could be catastrophic for the innocent.

For a very clear view of air strikes, their level of "precision" and the mess that is Afghanistan now, don’t miss Ben Anderson’s diary in the London Review of Books – his description of several weeks with British forces in the field is stunning:

I heard the Apache helicopter hovering above us come closer and watched Taliban positions in front of me to see its missiles land. Instead there was a terrific series of thuds right next to me, nowhere near the Taliban. I looked to my left and saw trees getting ripped to pieces. Earth and smoke rose high into the air forty metres away. The Apache had fired at last, but at what I had no idea. The ANA had walked along the line of trees that had just been chopped up, so perhaps their bandanas, sequined skull caps and brightly coloured scarves made them look like the enemy, but the pilot should have known where they were. Suddenly the Apache was making me more nervous than the Taliban.

The Apache came closer again and I heard the whoosh and bang of a Hellfire missile exploding. But again nothing happened to either of the Taliban positions. I looked around the wall to see what the Brits who called the air strike were doing. They were staggering around in different directions and were almost completely obscured by dust. The compound they had been leaning against had been hit, right in the corner where they were.

Then I heard shouting from up ahead, where the ANA had been attacking the hedge. They were angrily gesticulating towards the compound and getting up and walking towards us.

‘What are the British fucking doing? They are giving me a headache. They are killing my guys,’ the ANA commanding officer said as he walked back to the wall where we were and started shouting into his radio. Six of his men, he said, had been killed by the Apache strike.

* It’s worth noting that:

Article 48 of the Geneva Conventions clearly states: "The Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants." Article 50 dictates that "The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilian does not deprive the population of its civilian character."


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