Baghdad -- The scene would be familiar to any American frequent flyer. The hum of the aircraft could be the morning Delta shuttle from Reagan National to JFK. The smell of mediocre snacks fills the cabin. Elevator music plays as flight attendants welcome passengers.But this aircraft is a long way from Washington. There is a distinct tension onboard the plane, and it's not out of fear of a hijacking or terrorism -- at least not terrorism as defined by the Bush administration.
"Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar." God is Great. The pilot's chant is repeated methodically over the crackle of worn-out speakers in the American-made commercial aircraft as it taxis on the runway. At 8:30 am the daily Iraqi Airways shuttle is about to begin its journey from Saddam International Airport through the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq to its final destination, the port city of Basra.
For most Iraqis, flying, even within their own country, has become a rare event at best. A ticket for the trip to Basra is the rough equivalent of the average monthly salary. But for the past decade, it's not the price that has prevented Iraqis from flying.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's civilian air traffic was halted. The U.S. and Britain unilaterally imposed the so-called no-fly zones, allegedly to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south from Saddam Hussein's forces. The Iraqi skies are hardly friendly.
Away from the upbeat defiance of the Iraqi Airways crews who, since 2000, are once again flying across their country, a harsh reality rules on the ground in cities like Basra. With no declaration of war, U.S. and British warplanes bomb Iraq an average of three to four times a week. Baghdad says that over the last decade more than 1,400 civilians have been killed in U.S. and British attacks in the no-fly zones. While this cannot be independently verified, UN statistics say that more than 300 civilians have been killed in the raids since December 1998.
"If you want to be very cynical, then you say that what has in fact resulted from these zones is death and destruction," says Hans von Sponeck, the coordinator of the UN Humanitarian Program in Iraq from 1998 to 2000. "On average during the time I was in Iraq, there were bombing incidents every three days. The casualties were in the very areas that they allegedly established to protect people. How, at a 10,000-metre height, can you protect a Shiite population? That is a fantasy. The cruel reality is that people are dying as a result of these no-fly zones."
Von Sponeck says that in 1999 alone there were 132 bombings that caused civilian casualties. "The number of people killed was 120, the number of hurt 442," von Sponeck said.
These no-fly zones cover a sprawling chunk of Iraqi territory (more than 60 per cent of Iraq), from the 36th parallel north and from the 33rd parallel south. (In 1996 the southern zone was expanded from the 32nd parallel.) Since 1991, the U.S. has averaged more than 34,000 military sorties per year over Iraq, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The no-fly zone bombings represent the longest continuing U.S. bombing campaign since the Vietnam War. The Pentagon estimates that it carries out an average of 12 "missions" a month in Iraq (other figures put the number higher), at a cost of $750,000 U.S. per mission. In 2000, the official annual U.S. bill for the southern zone alone was estimated at $1.4 billion.
Over the past year, the current Bush administration has used the zones to pre-emptively degrade Iraq's already limited ability to defend against a large-scale U.S. attack, while not citing a single incident of attempted repression of Shiite or Kurdish populations as justification.
A simple glance at a map of Iraq tells an interesting tale about Washington's supposed humanitarian motives. The northern no-fly zone begins at the 36th parallel and encompasses Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul, which remains under the control of the Iraqi government. But almost half of the population of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (not under Baghdad's control) live below the 36th parallel and therefore "outside" the "protection" of U.S. and British warplanes.
On at least five occasions since October 3, 2002, U.S. planes have dumped hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets over areas in southern Iraq. In late November, the Pentagon said that in one run warplanes had dropped 360,000 leaflets saying the no-fly zones "protect the Iraqi people."
"Threatening these coalition aircraft has a consequence. The attacks may destroy you or any location of coalition choosing. Will it be you or your brother? You decide," said a translation of the leaflets distributed by the central command.
For much of the past decade, the U.S. and British attacks in the no-fly zones have been given cursory notice by major corporate media outlets, if at all. Recently, because of the loud beating of the war drum, these attacks are receiving more attention, but primarily from the angle of "Iraqi defiance."
The Bush administration asserted that firing on U.S. aircraft that had entered Iraqi airspace constituted a "material breach" of the November 8 UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. The charge was quickly, though diplomatically, rebuffed by Secretary General Kofi Annan and several foreign governments, including Security Council member China. There are no UN resolutions that prohibit Iraq from maintaining its military or taking action in defence of its territory.
Von Sponeck, a former UN assistant secretary general, scoffs at U.S. media's and government officials' characterization of these zones as having a basis in the UN charter or Security Council resolutions. "There is no UN mandate for the establishment of these two no-fly zones. It's an illegal establishment of a zone for bilateral interests of the U.S. and the UK. They always refer to resolution 688, which deals with an appeal to the Secretary General to ensure the protection of minorities in Iraq.' But despite the protests raised by von Sponeck and a handful of other UN officials, Washington continues to receive support from the UN in the form of silence.
Shortly after an incident in mid-November in which Iraqi forces fired on American warplanes that had entered the country's airspace, U.S. War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Iraq's actions "unacceptable" and alleged that Iraq was the "only place on the face of the earth where our forces are being fired on and the response is measured."
For the civilians who live within the zones, Washington's actions hardly seem measured. Throughout the south of the country, residents report almost daily over-flights by U.S. warplanes. Many say the constant rumble of the planes and the roar of the air raid sirens are causing psychological problems. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed, injured or affected by the foreign warplanes. Far from feeling comforted, residents say they are terrorized.
"At the beginning [when the zones were first established] they said they wouldn't bomb civilian people, and we accepted that," says Ikbar Fartus, an English teacher at a primary school in Basra. "We went to school, to the market because we were sure the [U.S.] president didn't lie. Since then, things proved that he didn't speak true."
She speaks from direct experience.
Among the winding roads and alleys of the poor Basra neighbourhood of Al Jummhurriya lies a thoroughfare now known as Missile Street. It was named after a deadly U.S. no-fly zone bombing on January 25, 1999. According to UN reports at the time, an AGM-130 satellite-guided cruise missile slammed into the middle of the residential neighbourhood, killing 17 civilians, at least four of them small children. Among the dead was a six-year-old boy named Haider.
Ikbar Fartus was his mother.
To this day, she bears the name of her dead son. In Iraqi culture, a woman takes the name of her first-born and is forever known as the mother of that child. Fartus is known by everyone as Um Haider, the mother of Haider.
Tragically, her story is not rare among the Shiite population of southern Iraq. And these stories cannot be ignored when President George W. Bush or members of his administration speak of the potential for Shiite rebellion against Saddam in concert with a U.S. led attack. Nor can Washington's history or the Bush family track record with the Iraqi Shiites be cast aside.
On February 15, 1991, George H.W. Bush appealed to "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." In early March 1991, a massive Shiite rebellion swept across southern Iraq from Basra to the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala. Baathists were tortured and executed in massive numbers throughout the south; pictures and portraits of Saddam were smashed to pieces. By mid-March, the Iraqi government lost control of 14 of the country's 18 provinces.
But meanwhile, American and other allied forces had destroyed and confiscated Iraqi munitions that could have been used by the rebellion. The death blow to the uprising came when the U.S. lifted the ban on Iraqi aircraft, allowing the Iraqi government to send in attack helicopters to mercilessly crush the rebellion in late March.
This is a history not forgotten in southern Iraq when President George W. Bush, the son, speaks of the potential for rebellion in the south. Furthermore, Basra and other southern cities and villages have been the front-line victims of 12 years of economic sanctions and contamination from the heavy use of depleted uranium munitions by U.S. and UK forces. Perhaps it could be said that many, if not most, Iraqis in the south hate Saddam Hussein. But would President Bush venture a guess at what they think of him or his father?
Throughout Iraq, regardless of political opinions of the government, people are bracing for a U.S. invasion. More than 500 Shiite clerics, including the imams at the holy shrines at Najaf and Kerbala (next to Mecca, the most sacred sites of Shiite Islam) recently issued a fatwa, a religious decree, calling on all followers -- Iraqi and non-Iraqi -- to fight a jihad against any invading American forces.
In recent months, Saddam Hussein has taken moves that seem intended to show Bush that Iraq's government is stable. Weapons are being distributed throughout the country, while most Iraqis already own some sort of gun. Clearly, the firepower for an uprising is in circulation and the government in Baghdad seems incredibly unconcerned about this.
Long after Saddam Hussein is gone, no matter how he goes, America will be facing the children of Iraq for generations to come. Among them will be Mustafa and his siblings, whose brother Haider was killed by a U.S. laser-guided cruise missile during Washington's undeclared war. Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist and coordinator of Iraqjournal.org.