Why is the media not reporting crucial information about U.S. bombing
runs in heavily-inhabited parts of Iraq?
The American media continues to ignore the increasingly devastating air war
being waged in Iraq against an ever more belligerent Iraqi resistance -- and,
as usual, Iraqi civilians continue to bear the largely unreported brunt of the
When the air war shows up at all in our press, it is never as a campaign, but
as scattered bare-bones reports of individual attacks on specific targets, almost
invariably based on military announcements. A typical example was reported by
Reuters on December 4th: "Two U.S. Air Force F-16 jets dropped laser-guided
bombs" which, according to a military spokesperson, killed two "insurgents"
after they attacked an army patrol near Balad, 37 miles west of Baghdad. On
the same day, Reuters reported that "a woman and two children" were
"wounded when U.S. forces conducted an air strike, bombing two houses in
Baiji, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad."
And even this minimalist version of the American air war rarely makes it into
large media outlets in the U.S.
Ignoring the Obvious
Author and media critic Norman
Solomon asked the following question recently: "According to the LexisNexis
media database, how often has the phrase ëair war' appeared in the New
York Times this year with reference to the current U.S. military effort in Iraq?
As of early December, the answer is: Zero." Solomon went on to point out
that the phrase "air war" had not appeared in either the Washington
Post or Time magazine even a single time this year.
Curiously enough, U.S. Central Command Air Force (CENTAF) reports are more
detailed than anything we normally can read in our papers. On December 6, for
example, CENTAF admitted to 46 air missions over Iraq flown on the previous
day -- in order to provide "support to coalition troops, infrastructure
protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist
Albeit usually broadly (and vaguely) described, and seldom taking possible
civilian casualties into account, these daily tabulations by the Air Force often
flesh out bare-bones reports with a little extra detail on the nature of the
air war. On that December 6th, for instance, the report added that "Air
Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, an MQ-1 Predator and Navy F/A-18 Hornets provided
close-air support to coalition troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near
Balad and Ramadi."
Not surprisingly, given their source, such reports glide over or underemphasize
potentially damaging information like the fact that bombing runs of this sort
are regularly conducted in heavily-inhabited areas of Iraq's cities and towns
where the resistance may also be strongly embedded. Oblique statements like
the following are the best you are likely to get from the military: "Coalition
aircraft also supported Iraqi and coalition ground forces operations focused
on creating a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary elections."
As a result, aside from reportage by one of the rare western independent journalists
left in Iraq or the many Arab journalists largely ignored in the U.S., the American
air assault on Iraq remains devastatingly ill-covered by larger outlets here.
This remains true, even as, militarily, air power begins to move center stage
at a moment when large-scale withdrawals of American ground troops are clearly
being considered by the Bush administration.
I have worked as an independent reporter in Baghdad for over eight months during
the U.S. occupation of Iraq thus far and I can confirm that a day never passed
in the capital city when the low rumblings of an Apache helicopter or the supersonic
thundering roar of an F-16 fighter jet didn't cause me to look up for the source
of the noise. Many a night I would be awakened by the low, whumping blades of
U.S. helicopters scouring the rooftops of the capital city -- flying at almost
building height to avoid rocket-propelled grenades from resistance fighters.
I would oftentimes wonder where they were coming from, as well as where they
It is impossible, really, to miss the overt signs of the ongoing air war in
Iraq when you are there, which makes the lack of coverage all the more startling.
At night, while standing on the roof of my hotel in Baghdad during the November
2004 assault on Fallujah, a city some 40-odd miles away, I could see on the
horizon the distant flashes of U.S. bombs that were searing that embattled city.
I often wondered how the scores of journalists in Baghdad working for major
American papers and TV networks could continue to ignore the daily air campaign
the U.S. military was waging right over their heads or within eyesight. Along
with countless eyewitness interviews I did on the damage caused from the air,
this is what prompted me to write Living
Under the Bombs for Tomdispatch some ten months ago. But it has only been
thanks to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, a journalist who has never even been
to Iraq, that the important subject of the air campaign there has finally been
brought to public awareness on a wider scale. In a recent interview with Democracy
Now's Amy Goodman about his latest piece in that magazine, aptly titled,
the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed Next? he commented, "Clearly
there's all sorts of anecdotal reason to believe that the bombing has gone up
exponentially, certainly in the last four or five months in the Sunni Triangle,
the four provinces around Baghdad." But he also pointed that, when it comes
to the American air campaign, "There's no statistics… We don't know
what's going on with the air war."
However, we have at least an idea.
The statistics we can glean from CENTAF indicate a massive rise in the number
of U.S. air missions in Iraq for the month of November as compared to most previous
months. Excluding weekends -- for some reason the Air Force does not make the
number of sorties they fly in Iraq and Afghanistan on Fridays and Saturdays
known to the public -- 996 November sorties were flown in Iraq according to
The size of this figure naturally begs the question, where are such missions
being flown and what is their size and nature? And it's important to note as
well that "air war" does not simply mean U.S. Air Force. Carrier-based
Navy and Marine aircraft flew over 21,000 hours of missions and dropped over
26 tons of ordnance in Fallujah alone during the November 2004 siege of that
In his recent article and interview, Hersh rightly reflects the concern of
American military men that, in any proposed draw-down plan for American forces,
Iraqi security forces are likely to be given some responsibility for Air Force
targeting operations. After all, they'll be the ones left on the ground. It's
an idea, he reports, that is "driving the Air Force crazy," because
they fear it may involve them in a future revenge war of ethnic and religious
groups in Iraq.
Even Pentagon figures indicate that 10-15% of laser-guided munitions don't
land where intended, but having those munitions land (or not land) where "the
Iranians" intend doesn't please U.S. officials. Senior intelligence personnel
complained to Hersh that "Iran will be targeting our bombers."
Ironically, President Nixon's Secretary of Defense Melvin
Laird recently wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that
his "withdrawal" policy of "Vietnamization" during that
war, actually worked. (It involved withdrawing American troops while fiercely
increasing the American air war in what was then South Vietnam and surrounding
countries.) So, argues Laird, would "Iraqification."
"The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget
is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973. I believed
then and still believe today that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam
was capable of defending itself, just as I believe Iraq can do the same now."
Though Laird's rewriting of the history of the last years of the Vietnam War
(and his own dismally failed policies) may be striking at this moment, he is
clearly hardly alone in holding onto the idea that a "withdrawal"
that would involve ever more bombs dropped and missiles fired from American
aircraft is now the way to go. In a classic case of history repeating itself
(as tragedy but also possibly farce), the Bush administration appears to be
seriously considering an "Iraqification" policy of its own.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski used to work in the Pentagon
and for the National Security Agency before retiring in 2003. Well known as
a Pentagon whistleblower for speaking out about Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld's corrupt Office of Special Plans in which so much of the pre-war "intelligence"
for Iraq was cherry-picked and passed on, Kwiatkowski has been consistently
critical of the Bush Administration.
Kwiatowski believes the administrations' new policy of substituting air power
for troops harkens back to the failure of Vietnam. "Let me see if I have
this right," she says in an interview with Tomdispatch.
"We have a foul-mouthed Texan in the White House, facing a domestically
unpopular war that he never expected to have to fight. In order to stop a
persistent anti-American insurgency in a faraway country, this President will
now escalate the use of air power, striking deep into the heart of insurgency
strongholds and destroying the will of those that support the insurgency.
"This sounds like a replay of Rolling Thunder, March 1965. The Pentagon,
led by the last remnant of those who were supposed to have directly experienced
the danger of politicized wars managed out of the White House and the sheer
uselessness of air power to win hearts and minds, must indeed be out of its
collective mind to support a strategic shift like this."
It is important to note that, as in Vietnam, troop morale in Iraq now seems
to be plummeting. According to the Army's own figures, in a study conducted
last summer with all units in Iraq, 56% of them reported either "low"
or "very low" morale. Keep in mind that towards the end of the war
in Vietnam, the Army was in a state of ongoing revolt and incipient collapse.
By the time direct U.S. involvement ended with the signing of the Paris Peace
Accords in 1973, the sort of mixed morale statistics seen in our military in
Iraq last summer would have been an impossible dream.
Getting large numbers of troops out while intensifying the air war might seem
then like a reasonable formula for solving certain of this administration's
problems without abandoning its basic Iraq policies, but this will undoubtedly
prove a perilous undertaking in its own right, as Hersh recently pointed out:
"A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's
public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by
American airpower. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while
the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn,
the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase
unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what."
One can easily imagine the potential for disaster at a future moment when Shia
and Kurdish militia members in Iraqi army uniforms would be calling down air-strikes
on Sunni neighborhoods, settling old scores as civilian casualties went through
But visions of a frightful future in Iraq should not be overshadowed by the
devastation already caused by present levels of American air power loosed, in
particular, on heavily populated urban areas of that country.
CENTAF reports, for example, that on November 14th of this year, "Air
Force F-15 Eagles, MQ-1 Predators unmanned aerial vehicles and Royal Air Force
Tornado GR4 aircraft flew air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces in the vicinity
of Karabilah. The F-15s dropped precision-guided bombs and the Predators fired
Hellfire missiles successfully against insurgent positions." The tactic
of using massively powerful 500 and 1,000 pound bombs in urban areas to target
small pockets of resistance fighters has, in fact, long been employed in Iraq.
No intensification of the air war is necessary to make it a commonplace.
The report from November 14th adds, "Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons flew
air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces near Balad. The F-16s successfully dropped
a precision-guided bomb on a building used by insurgents. F-16s and a Predator
also flew air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces in the vicinity of Karabilah.
The Predator successfully fired a Hellfire missile against insurgent positions."
The vagueness of certain aspects of such reports from CENTAF is troubling,
however. The reasons for bombing raids are usually given in generic formulas
like this typical one found in official statements released on November 24th
and 27th: "Coalition aircraft also supported Iraqi and coalition ground
forces operations to create a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary
elections." Such formulations, of course, tell us, as they are meant to,
next to nothing about what may actually be happening -- and as the air war is
virtually never covered by American reporters in Iraq, these and other versions
of the official language of air power are never seriously considered, questioned,
explored, or compared to events on the ground.
Another common mission, as stated on the 17th, 22nd and several other days
in November (and used again in CENTAF's December statements) has been the equally
vague: "included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection,
reconstruction activities, and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities."
One of the busier days for the U.S. Air Force in Iraq recently was the last
day of November, when 59 sorties were flown. CENTAF reported that "F-15
Eagles successfully dropped precision-guided munitions against an insurgents'
weapons bunker near Baghdad. F-16 Fighting Falcons, an MQ-1 Predator and Navy
F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats provided close-air support to coalition troops
in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Al Hawijah, Al Mahmudiyah and Fallujah."
In addition, Royal Australian Air Force were also flying surveillance and reconnaissance
missions that day, as the British Air Force often does on other days.
A broad overview of the types of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft the U.S.
military is employing in Iraq gives an idea of the scope of the air war currently
underway and the sort of destructive power available on an everyday basis. It
can also offer hints of what we might expect in an air-power intensified draw-down
While this is in no way an inclusive list, fixed-wing aircraft include the
F-14D Tomcat and F/A 18 fighter jets which are being used by the Navy and Marines.
The F-18 fires the laser-guided, 630 pound Maverick Missile (at a cost of $141,442
per shot, by the way). In addition, both the F-14 and F/A 18 fire a 20mm hydraulically
operated gatling gun which emits between 4,000 and 6,000 rounds per minute at
a range of "several thousand yards."
The Air Force is using F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon fighter jets, along with
AF MQ-1 Predator drones which are armed with Hellfire missiles. AV-8 Harrier
fighter jets have also been used in Iraq as have AC-130 gunships, especially
in urban battles like the fighting for Fallujah last year. These planes are
capable of circling targets for long periods while raining thousands of rounds
of ammunition per minute down from above. Then there is the A-10 Warthog military
jet which is used as ground support, as it is capable of firing 4,200 armor
piercing 30mm rounds per minute.
At this point, bombs used commonly range in explosive power from 250-2,000
pounds, with cluster bombs, the MK-77 500 pound fire bomb (napalm) and the infamous
White Phosphorous also having been employed at various moments. The Joint Direct
Attack Munition (JDAM) bomb, ranging from 250-2,000 pounds, was used extensively
during the most recent military operation against Fallujah. The 2,000 pound
variety, for example, has the capacity to blast a crater in a concrete street
70 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. This size of bomb has a blast radius of
110 feet within which a human being will die, while fragmentation from the bomb
casing can achieve velocities up to 9,000 feet per second and reach areas over
3,000 feet away from the detonation site.
The U.S. military is also using a wide variety of helicopters offensively in
Iraq. These include the Apache, Kiowa, Black Hawk, Cobra, Pave Low, Chinook,
Most of the available data -- and it's minimal -- about how all this airpower
is being used in Iraq comes from the Air Force. One of their news reports from
June, 2005, for example, typically reported a single incident in which air power
was brought to bear: "Coalition aircraft dropped seven precision-guided
bombs while providing close-air support to coalition troops in the western Al
Anbar province of Iraq on June 11. Anti-Iraqi forces had taken refuge in buildings
in an attempt to shield themselves from coalition attack. An estimated 40 insurgents
Brig. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy combined forces air component commander, added
"Our job was to provide close-air support and intel to coalition troops
in direct contact with anti-Iraqi forces. Airpower support extends well beyond
dropping munitions. Our top priority is providing close-air support and reconnaissance
to our Soldiers, Marines and coalition forces in contact with enemy forces on
The Air Force claims that "nearly 70 percent of all munitions used by
the air component since the start of the operation have been precision-guided,"
and "every possible precaution is taken to protect innocent Iraqi civilians,
friendly coalition forces, facilities and infrastructure." However, a serious
study of violence to civilians in Iraq by a British medical journal, the Lancet,
released in October, 2004, estimated that 85% of all violent deaths in Iraq
are generated by coalition forces and claimed that many of these are due to
U.S. air strikes. While no significant scientific inquiry has been carried out
in Iraq recently, Iraqi medical personnel, working in areas where U.S. military
operations continue, report to me that they feel the "vast majority"
of civilian deaths are the result of actions by the occupation forces.
Given the U.S. air power already being applied largely in Iraq's cities and
towns, the prospect of increasing it is chilling indeed. As to how this might
benefit the embattled Bush administration, we return to Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski
"Shifting the mechanism of the destruction of Iraq from soldiers and
Marines to distant and safer air power would be successful in several ways.
It would reduce the negative publicity value of maimed American soldiers and
Marines, would bring a portion of our troops home and give the Army a necessary
operational break. It would increase Air Force and Naval budgets, and line
defense contractor pockets. By the time we figure out that it isn't working
to make oil more secure or to allow Iraqis to rebuild a stable country, the
Army will have recovered and can be redeployed in force."
But if current trends continue, the end of the U.S. occupation in Iraq may
more closely resemble the ending in Vietnam -- a view Kwiatkowski agrees with.
The political climate at home may force a decrease in the number of U.S. troops
in Iraq, but the compensatory upswing in air power meant to offset this will
be inevitable and will inevitably lead to unexpected problems.
Why? Because the Bush administration will still be committed to permanently
hanging onto a crucial group of four or five mega-military bases (into which
billions of construction and communications dollars have already been poured)
along with a massive embassy, directing political and military "traffic"
from the heart of Baghdad's Green Zone -- and that means an unending occupation
of Iraq, something that, air power or no, can only mean endless strife.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist from Anchorage,
Alaska. He has spent eight months reporting from occupied Iraq, and recently
has been giving presentations about Iraq around the U.S. He regularly reports
for Inter Press Service, and contributes to the Independent, the Sunday Herald,
and Asia Times as well as Tomdispatch.com. He maintains a website at: dahrjamailiraq.com.