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The Uncovered War: Air Power in Iraq | The Nation

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The Uncovered War: Air Power in Iraq

In addition to our largely ignored permanent bases in Iraq, here's another mystery of Iraqi (and Afghani) media coverage: The essential American way of war -- air power -- has long been completely MIA, except at a few websites. Until last week, there had been not a single mainstream piece of any significance on the air war these last years, with the exception of journalist Seymour Hersh's remarkable December 2005 report, "Up in the Air," in the New Yorker. ("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. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.") It is, of course, an irony that the only American reporter in these last years to look up and notice all those planes, helicopters, and Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones overhead has never been to Iraq.

Such modest coverage of the air war in Iraq as exists in our press generally comes in the form of infrequent paragraphs buried in wire service round-ups as in a November 14th Associated Press piece headlined, "U.S. General Confronts Iraqi Leader on Security":

"On Monday night, U.S. forces raided the homes of some Sadr followers, and U.S. jets fired rockets on Shula, their northwest Baghdad neighborhood, residents said. Police said five residents were killed, although a senior Sadr aide put the death toll at nine. The U.S. military said it had no comment."

This incident assumedly took place somewhere in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr city. In other words, we're talking about American planes regularly sending rockets or bombs into relatively heavily populated urban areas. All you have to do is imagine such a thing happening in an American city to grasp the barbarism involved. And yet, over these years in which such targeting has been commonplace and, in larger campaigns, parts of cities like Najaf and Falluja have been destroyed from the air, hardly a single reporter has gone to an air base like Balad and simply spent time with American pilots.

(Last week, David S. Cloud of the New York Times finally became the first reporter to get in a plane, a B-1 bomber, take off from an unidentified "Middle Eastern airfield" for an eleven-hour mission at 20,000 feet over Afghanistan and to report a staggering rise in the use of air power in that embattled country -- 2,095 air strikes in the last six months. In passing, however, Cloud offered a far too low figure for strikes in Iraq in the same period and the piece inside appeared deep inside the Times.)

Not surprisingly, the use of air power in Iraq remains a non-issue in this country. How could Americans react, when there's no news to react to, when there's next to no information to be had--which doesn't mean that information on our ongoing air campaign is unavailable. In fact, the Air Force is proud as punch of the job it's doing; so any reporter, not to speak of any citizen, can go to the Air Force website and look at daily reports of air missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report of November 15th, for instance, offers the following:

"In Iraq, U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18s conducted a strike against anti-Iraqi forces near Ramadi. The F/A-18s expended guided bomb unit-31s on enemy targets. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons provided close-air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Forward Operating Base McHenry and Baqubah. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles provided close-air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Baghdad.

"In total, coalition aircraft flew 32 close air support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities."

This was a pretty typical day's work in recent months; there were 34 "close air support missions" on November 14th, 32 on the 13th, and 35 on the 12th--and note that each of the strikes mentioned was "near" a major city. These reports can be hard to parse, but they certainly give a sense, day by day, that the low-level air war in Iraq is no less ongoing for being unreported.

Here's the crucial thing: At the moment, all sorts of Iraqi "redeployment" or "phased withdrawal" plans are floating in the air in Washington, most aimed at "stabilizing" the woeful Iraqi government embedded in Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone and keep the US in that country in some scaled-down form. The fact is, with such goals, American troop levels simply cannot be slowly drawn-down without -- as in Vietnam -- some increase in the use of air power. And yet, you can look far and wide and find no indication of any public discussion of this at the White House, in Congress, or in what we know of the deliberations of James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group. And yet, as the Iraqi chaos and strife grows while the American public increasingly withdraws its support for the war, air power will be one answer. You can count on that. And air power--especially in or "near" cities--simply means civilian carnage. It will be called "collateral damage" (if anyone bothers to call it anything at all), but--make no mistake--it will be at the heart of any new strategy that calls for "redeployment" without meaning to get us out of Iraq.

For Part 1 of The Uncovered War, "Permanent Bases in Iraq," click here. Next: "Salvaging American Dignity."

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