No Fly Zones Over Iraq

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, housed in compact metal containers, fills the cabin; elevator music playing as flight attendants welcome passengers and help them to their seats. Businessmen in suits read the morning paper or shuffle through documents in briefcases.

But this aircraft is a long way from Washington.

There is a distinct tension onboard the plane and it is 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. It’s 8:30 am and the daily Iraqi Airways shuttle is about to begin its journey from Saddam International Airport through the US-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq to its final destination, the port city of Basra.

As the plane begins its ascent, passengers get a rare aerial glimpse of a locked-down country, where picture taking is extremely limited.

The familiar bell rings on board the plane, alerting passengers that they are free to move about the cabin. Moments later, the morning shuttle to Basra crosses the 33rd parallel and enters what Washington has declared the southern “no-fly zone.” The flight’s chief steward, a Kurdish man named Riyadh, walks down the aisle. He says that American warplanes frequently contact the Iraqi pilots and harass or threaten them. “Usually, we tell them to shut up,” he says.

Since the grounding of Iraqi Airways after the Gulf War, Riyadh has worked as an international telephone operator at a “Businessman Center” on Saddoun Street in Baghdad. After 1991, many Iraqi Airways offices were converted into centers that house multiple international phone lines and fax machines. For much of the last decade, Iraqi pilots, flight attendants and plane mechanics have sat on chairs spending endless hours manually dialing international calls for customers. Due to the country’s severely debilitated international phone system, a single call can take up to 2 hours or more to get a connection and often involves dialing the same number hundreds of times. The receipts for these calls are printed on Iraqi Airways baggage claim tickets and hotel voucher forms leftover from the 1980s.

While Riyadh still works as a phone operator most days, today he is smiling. He is once again wearing his Iraqi Airways uniform. “It’s very good to be back again flying and I hope that I can fly internationally again on Iraqi Airways. This is our aim and I hope it will be very soon.” As for the presence of American and British warplanes, Riyadh says, “We have to fly. We have to enter these zones. It’s our country, you know.”

For most Iraqis, flying–even within their own country–has become at best a rare event. A ticket for a trip to Basra is about 18,000 Iraqi Dinars, or $9, the rough equivalent of the average monthly salary in Iraq. 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 US and Britain unilaterally imposed the so-called no-fly zones, allegedly to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shi’ites in the south from Saddam Hussein’s forces. According to Washington’s interpretation, the sanctions banned international flights to or from Iraq. To this day, passengers arriving at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan will see several Iraqi Airways planes grounded on the tarmac since 1991.

It wasn’t until December 26, 1998 that Iraq very publicly stated its intent to defend its national airspace against invading aircraft. Baghdad’s declaration came just days after the end of Operation “Desert Fox”–four days of massive bombing by the Clinton Administration from December 16-19, 1998.

The Iraqi announcement was preceded by France’s complete withdrawal from participation in the attacks in the no-fly zones following Desert Fox. The French had ceased participation in Operation “Northern Watch” in 1996 and had now pulled out of the attacks in the south, leaving Washington and London to “enforce,” as US officials put it, the “will of the international community” on their own. As of this writing, however, the Pentagon website for the no-fly zones continues to list France as a participant.

In late 2000, with the US-led sanctions capping off a decade of unprecedented suffering among Iraq’s 23 million citizens, foreign governments began increasingly to break ranks with the Washington-led policy. In August 2000, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez became the first foreign elected head of state to visit Baghdad since 1990.

This set the scene for the first sanctions-busting flight to Iraq–a Russian plane that landed at the newly refurbished Saddam International Airport on August 17, 2000. What was significant is that Moscow did not apply for permission for the flight at the US-dominated sanctions committee at the UN. The US and Britain objected to the flight, but to no avail. France’s Ambassador, Jean-David Levitte said, “For many years now, we have considered that there is no flight embargo against Iraq.”

This opening led to a flood of foreign aircraft into Baghdad, carrying medicines, food and humanitarian goods, along with foreign dignitaries all speaking out against the flight bans and the sanctions. It also gave a tremendous boost to Iraq’s successful diplomatic push to renew relations and trade with its neighbors.

Empowered by this international defiance of Washington’s policy, Baghdad announced that it would resume domestic flights on Iraqi Airways beginning November 5, 2000. Shortly after the first plane took off, the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Al Sahaf said, “These flights will continue despite the threats, as they aim to smash the American-British criminal acts of imposing illegal no-fly zones.”

Today, Iraqi Airways runs an average of 4 daily flights between Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. Regular routes on foreign carriers like Royal Jordanian include Amman, Moscow and Damascus. But the Iraqi skies are hardly friendly.


Away from the upbeat defiance of the Iraqi Airways crews, once again flying across their country, on the ground in cities like Basra lays the harsh reality. With no declaration of war, American and British warplanes bomb Iraq an average of 3-4 times a week. Baghdad says over the last decade more than 1,400 civilians have been killed in the US 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 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 1998-2000. “On average, during the time I was in Iraq, there were bombing incidents every 3 days. The casualties were in the very areas that they allegedly established to protect people. How, at a 10,000-meter height, can you protect a Shi’ite population? That is a fantasy. The cruel reality is that people are dying as a result of these no-fly zones.”

In 1999, von Sponeck began compiling what he called “Air Strike Reports” on the US and British attacks. He submitted these every three months to the Security Council and Secretary General Kofi Annan. He says that in 1999 alone, there were 132 bombings that caused civilian “casualties.”

“The number of people killed were 120, the number of people hurt, 442,” von Sponeck said. “That’s only in the year 1999.”

“I was very severely reprimanded particularly by the British authorities for having ‘strayed off’ my mandate,” he says. “The reports showed destruction of civilian property in areas where there shouldn’t have been a foreign air zone established in the first place.”

These zones cover a sprawling chunk of Iraqi territory (more than 60% 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 US 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 US 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 per mission. In 2000, the official annual US bill for the southern “zone” alone was estimated at $1.4 billion.

Since the current Bush administration took power in Washington, there has been a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of the bombings, particularly in the south of the country. Over the past year, the Bush administration has used the zones to preemptively degrade Iraq’s already limited ability to defend against a large-scale US attack, while not citing a single incident of attempted repression of Shi’ite or Kurdish populations as justification.


The Bush administration now portrays the attacks in the zones as responses to Iraqi radars tracking US and British planes or to anti-aircraft fire. Largely, Washington leaves the story about humanitarian justifications to the obliging media, which continues to report the raids as being motivated singularly by concern for the rights of Shi’ites and Kurds.

In testimony before Congress in 2001, General Tommy Franks, the commander of US Central Command said the purpose of the zones is to demonstrate “a continued and significant troop presence to enhance deterrence and show the United States’ commitment to force Saddam to comply with sanctions and WMD inspections.” He said the zones are designed to “provide access and interaction with Gulf governments; ensure Iraq cannot easily repair and improve its anti-aircraft capabilities within the no-fly zones; and, ensure the ingress and egress routes that would be necessary to prosecute an expanded war against Iraq remain sufficiently clear of sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems.”

Frank’s explanation is far from the reported humanitarian aims of the zones. As Washington continues its troop build up in the region, the Pentagon is using the no-fly zones to prepare combat pilots for a large-scale attack on Iraq. Eliot Cohen, who directed the Air Force study of the Persian Gulf War bombing campaign said recently the no-fly zones “have an added benefit in intelligence and training.”

An AP dispatch filed November 12, from the USS Abraham Lincoln reports: “On quiet days, when the Iraqis don’t shoot at U.S. fighter jets, the pilots practice spotting targets of attack, like airfields. It’s an experience that ‘makes any potential action infinitely easier … to fly over the same territory you’re going to attack is a real luxury,’ said Capt. Kevin C. Albright, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln’s air wing. When the Iraqis do fire – an increasingly frequent scenario – simulation stops and real bombing begins.

“But instead of hitting anti-aircraft and missile batteries – the usual targets in a decade of coalition patrols – the pilots now more often strike Iraqi command bunkers, communications stations and radar directing the attacks. Those costly, hard-to-repair facilities are essential to Iraq’s air defense.”

Rear Admiral David Gove, deputy director of global operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on November 20 that U.S. and British pilots were “essentially flying combat missions … Any opportunity that they have to understand the capabilities and the layout of Iraqi air-defense weapons systems is useful for their own experience base.”

The Associated Press reported in mid-November that the Pentagon has also changed its targeting in the no-fly zones in recent months, “not necessarily hitting back at facilities from which the hostilities originate, but rather planning strikes that will do the most to cripple Iraq air defenses.”

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 US and British warplanes.

On at least five occasions since October 3, 2002, US planes have dumped hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets over areas in southern Iraq. In late November, the Pentagon said 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.

“Coalition Air Power can strike at will. Any time, any place,” added the warning. Several versions of the leaflets have been dropped over areas of southern Iraq.

A different version dropped earlier says, “Before you engage coalition aircraft, think about the consequences.” The leaflet has a graphic of a large cloud of smoke caused by a massive explosion. Debris is scattered amidst the wreckage. What appears to be the face of an Iraqi soldier is superimposed over the scene. On the bottom of the leaflet is a picture of a crouching Iraqi woman in traditional garb and an Iraqi man holding what appears to be a child. “Think about your family. Do what you must to survive,” the leaflet says.

Another leaflet reads: “The destruction experienced by your colleagues in other air defense locations is a response to your continuing aggression toward planes of the coalition forces. No tracking or firing on these aircraft will be tolerated. You could be next.”

After the first reported dropping of leaflets in early October, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Lieutenant Dan Hetlage told the American Forces Press Service, “We just want them to get the message, ‘Hey, this is why we keep striking.'”


For much of the past decade, the US and British attacks in the no-fly zones have been given cursory notice by major corporate media outlets, if at all. The story, usually with a Washington dateline, reads the same almost every time: “US warplanes bombed an Iraqi command and control post in southern Iraq after Iraqi radar locked on allied aircraft patrolling the No Fly Zone, according to a statement from US Central Command.” The story almost always goes on to inform readers that “The pilots returned safely to base.” Then, of course, the story explains that the zones were “established after the 1991 Gulf War to protect minority Kurds and Shiites from Saddam.”

Recently, because of the loud beating of the war drum, these attacks are receiving more attention in the media. But primarily from the angle of “Iraqi defiance.” The Bush administration asserted that Iraq’s firing on US aircraft entering 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 defense of its territory.

Hans von Sponeck, a 32-year veteran of the United Nations and a former Assistant Secretary General, scoffs at the characterization of these zones by the US media and government officials as having a basis in the UN charter or Security Council resolutions.

“That’s a total misnomer,” he says. “There is no UN mandate for the establishment of these two no-fly zones. There is always a reference to resolution 688, which deals with an appeal to the Secretary General to ensure the protection of minorities in Iraq. That is not, by a wide stretch of the imagination, an agreement that you can establish, in some other country, airspace that belongs only to you and is blocked to the national aircraft. It is an illegal establishment of a zone for bilateral interests of the US and the UK.”

But despite the public 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.

Baghdad has consistently criticized the United Nations Iraqi-Kuwaiti Observation Mission (UNIKOM), which monitors the demilitarized zone between the Iraq/Kuwait border, for refusing to document the violations of Iraq’s sovereignty by the US and UK warplanes and to properly name the parties entering the demilitarized zone. In its reports, UNIKOM refers to the warplanes as “unidentified planes.”

In early December, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri, wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan accusing the US and UK governments of practicing “blatant state terrorism” by bombing civilian targets in Iraq. Sabri said that from October 18 to November 17, 2002, the no-fly zone bombings had killed 10 people and wounded seven others. He said Baghdad reserves the right of “legitimate self-defense under the UN Charter and international law.”

After the letter was made public, President Bush responded. “A regime that fires upon American and British pilots is not taking the path of compliance,” Bush said. “A regime that sends letters filled with protests and falsehoods is not taking the path of compliance.”

Shortly after an incident in mid-November in which Iraqi forces fired on American warplanes that had entered the country’s airspace, US 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 in Iraq hardly seem measured. Throughout the south of the country, residents report almost daily over-flights by US warplanes. Many people say the constant rumble of the planes and air raid sirens are causing psychological problems, especially among women and children. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed, injured or affected by the foreign warplanes over the past decade. Far from feeling comforted by the planes, 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 out to school, to the market because we were sure that the [US] President didn’t lie or something like that. But since then, things proved that they didn’t speak true.”

Fartus speaks from direct experience.

Through the winding roads and alleys of the poor Basra neighborhood of Al Jummhurriya lays a street now known as Missile Street. It was named after a deadly US 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 neighborhood, killing 17 civilians, at least 4 of them small children playing in the streets. Among the dead was a 6-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. She lives every day of her life haunted by that January morning when her son was taken from her by US missiles. It tears her apart every time she tells the story, but she says she wants it to be known.

“Until now, I didn’t forget what happened on that day. At 9:30 in the morning we were sitting and I was teaching my children,” she remembers. They heard the rumble of the warplanes, “then a big bomb happened. The glasses of the windows and the dishes and cups, glasses in the kitchen, all of them fell down and broke. Our faces were full of blood because of the [flying, broken] glass. Two of my children were with me, Hindu and Hamza. But Haider and my other son, Mustafa, they were out in the street.”

A devout Muslim, she remembers putting on her cover before running quickly out of the house. “I saw the street is full of smoke and dust and it was like midnight. Then, I ran quickly and called my children ‘Haider, Mustafa, Haider, Mustafa.’ I didn’t find them.”

She begins to cry, but continues the story through her tears. “At last, I saw a small hill of broken wood and iron and pieces of dust and then I saw my oldest son, Haider, full of blood, his face–the blood covered his face and his body. His head and the circle of blood under his head on the ground. I didn’t forget that. Never.”

She regains her composure. “He closed his eyes. Then I called him, touched him, moved him. He didn’t answer me.”

She then heard her other son, Mustafa, faintly calling “mamma, mamma.”

“I saw him, his eyes full of blood and all his face and head full of injuries and blood,” she says. “I tried to carry both of them but I couldn’t.”

Knowing that her firstborn son, Haider, was dead, she held Mustafa in her arms, ran to the road and took a taxi to the hospital. Mustafa survived the attack. He lost two fingers and lives with shrapnel in his liver.

Tragically, Um Haider’s story is not rare among the Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite rebellion against Saddam in concert with a US led attack. Nor can Washington’s history or the Bush family track record with the Iraqi Shi’ites be cast aside.


On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces entered and swiftly occupied neighboring Kuwait, a move that ultimately led to the Gulf War. The invading Iraqi Army was comprised largely of Shi’ite and Kurdish conscripts. At the onset of the allied ground offensive, many of them deserted their posts outright; others did so after Saddam ordered a withdrawal from Kuwait. Unwilling to die for Saddam on the one hand and being sent into a totally unwinnable war on the other, the retreating soldiers were prime candidates for a rebellion against the government. Add to this the repression, misery and suffering experienced throughout southern Iraq and the ground was ripe for an uprising.

On February 15, 1991, in a carefully crafted and well-publicized statement, then-President George HW 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.” To underscore the point, Bush repeated it verbatim in another speech that day. In early March 1991, a massive Shi’ite rebellion swept across southern Iraq from Basra to the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala. Ba’athists 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.

As the rebellion spread, representatives of the most prominent Shi’ite cleric in Iraq attempted to contact American forces that were then occupying parts of Iraq to assess Washington’s support. The US Commander in the region, General Norman Schwarzkopf refused to meet with them. American and other allied forces, meanwhile, destroyed and confiscated Iraqi munitions that could have been used by the rebellion. But the deathblow to the uprising came when the US lifted the over-flight ban on Iraqi aircraft, allowing the Iraqi government to send in attack helicopters to mercilessly crush the rebellion in late March. On top of this, the elite Republican Guard units that General Schwarzkopf had allowed to retreat to Baghdad at the end of the war led the counteroffensive on the ground against the rebellion.

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 frontline victims of 12 years of economic sanctions and contamination from the heavy use of depleted uranium munitions by US and UK forces during the Gulf War. The food supply is poisoned and cancer rates are out of control. The hospitals of the south are like morgues full of children with cancer and indescribable birth defects. People live with air raid sirens, American and British warplanes and regular bombings. The suffering at the hands of Saddam has been eclipsed by the terror of the Washington-led policy. 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?


Today, 12 years after the Gulf War, pundits and officials in Washington speak of the Iraqi Army turning on Saddam and of a Northern Alliance-style force made up of Shi’ites, Kurds and dissident Sunnis rebelling against Baghdad. They prefer to ignore history. Iraq, like Iran, is a predominantly Shi’ite country. Southern Iraq is overwhelmingly Shi’ite and its people fought on the side of Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

The uprising in 1991 was fuelled by tens of thousands of Iraqis who had been sent into Kuwait to fight an unwinnable occupation war. Since then, American policy has been based on the notion that relentlessly starving, depriving and bombing 23 million Iraqis will lead to a rebellion against the government. The policy has been an utter failure that has only strengthened Saddam Hussein and his grip on power. Iraq has been made the crucifix of the Middle East, but the blame for the unprecedented suffering has not fallen at Saddam’s feet. As one Iraqi official recently put it, “the current Bush has no Kuwait.”

“You see 1990 is not 2002,” says Saeed Al Musawi, Iraq’s Deputy Foreign Minister. “Yes, Iraqi troops entered Kuwait. Yes, it was a use of force against a sovereign country. The situation was rectified and Iraq paid a heavy price. Now, they say ‘we want to change the government. We don’t like the president.’ We are a nation of 7,000 years of civilization. This talk is not only an insult to us but to the dignity of all human beings.”

Throughout Iraq, and regardless of their political opinions of the government, people are bracing for a US invasion. More than 500 Shi’ite clerics, including the Imams at the holy shrines at Najaf and Kerbala (next to Mecca, the most sacred sites of Shi’ite 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 several moves that seem intended to show Bush that Iraq’s government is stable and unconcerned with internal strife. He virtually emptied the country’s prisons, even releasing political prisoners. Weapons are being distributed in areas 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. What’s clear is that Saddam Hussein is banking on the premise that Iraqis despise Bush and his “crusader army” more than they hate Saddam.

Like no other people in recent history, the Iraqis know what it means to suffer. A once great civilization has been reduced to what Denis Halliday, a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, called a handout society. Their collective faces have been pressed into the mud and rubbed there for 12 years in front of the world’s eyes. Like a plague, US foreign policy has swept through the homes of all ordinary Iraqis, while leaving the government firmly in power. No assassination or coup or invasion will erase this from the hearts and minds and memories of the tens of thousands of Iraqi children who have grown up in pure misery, watching their parents humiliated, beaten down, killed. 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 6-year-old brother Haider was killed by a US laser-guided cruise missile during Washington’s undeclared war against Iraq.

JEREMY SCAHILL is an independent journalist. He reports for the nationally-syndicated radio programs Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News. He reports frequently from Iraq, where he and independent filmmaker Jacquie Soohen coordinate, the only website providing independent reporting from Iraq. He can be reached at


JEREMY SCAHILL, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.His new website is