Global Policy Forum

Britain Seeks U-Turn Over Iraq Bombing

January 7, 2001

The British government, in a policy u-turn, is to propose to the incoming US administration that the bombing of targets over southern Iraq should be stopped.

British and US planes have enforced no-fly zones along Iraq's northern and southern borders since 1992. In the past two years alone, they have dropped more than 100 bombs, mainly against Iraqi air defences.

The bombing, in what is sometimes called the "forgotten war", has led to an unknown number of civilian casualties. Hans von Sponeck, the former UN humanitarian coordinator, writing in the Guardian last week, said that 144 civilians had died in the no-fly zones because of the bombing.

The two no-fly zones were imposed by the US and Britain after the Gulf war in what was described as a humanitarian effort to protect the Shi'ites in the south of Iraq and Kurds in the north. However, they are not backed by any UN security council resolution and do not include flights by Iraqi helicopters. Iraq is now flying civilian aircraft over the zones.

The official British line is that there are no plans to change the approach to Iraq and that British foreign policy is determined independently of the US. In the Guardian last week, Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, strongly defended the no-fly zone policy.

But in reality, the whole of US-British policy towards Iraq is under review as a result of the impending arrival of a new US administration. Among the top foreign policy issues the new president, George W Bush, will have to contend with is how to deal with the renewed confidence of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Mr Bush is expected to take a tough line, given that his father was president at the time of the Gulf war and that his secretary of state, Colin Powell, commanded the Allied forces. Gen Powell has spoken of the need to "re-energise" US policy towards Iraq. But only Britain and the US remain enthusiastic about maintaining sanctions and France, among others, has criticised the continued bombing of southern Iraq.

In an attempt to deflect criticism, the British government has been looking behind-the-scenes at the introduction of so-called "smart" sanctions and an end to the southern no-fly zone.

The no-fly zone was meant to counter Saddam Hussein's assault on the southern Shi'ites by denying him air space. But the Iraqi campaign of repression has effectively ended because the anti-Saddam opposition in the towns and among the Marsh Arabs has been quelled.

The Ministry of Defence, which has spent more than 800m pounds policing the zones, is increasingly uneasy about the possibility of an RAF pilot going down, and the bombing has led to public concern, especially after evidence that victims have included civilians.

The British government is proposing to retain the no-fly zone in the north because it argues the threat remains to the Iraqi Kurds.

Although ready to consider fresh policies, Britain does not intend to let up on Saddam, seeing him as a serious threat to world stability.

Downing Street has been increasingly toying with the idea of switching from a blanket ban that has exceptions to sanctions that specify a narrow band of prohibited goods, mainly weapons. UN reports have shown that the sanctions have resulted in a high civilian death toll, especially among children.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said yesterday a rethink of British and UN policy towards Iraq was "absolutely necessary".

"Ten years of inertia is no substitute for effective policy," he said.

Also under consideration will be sanctions that target the regime more effectively by trying to limit the ability to travel and hitting overseas bank accounts, though such measures have proved difficult to achieve in the past.

More Information on a Turning Point for Iraq
More Information on No-Fly Zones
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


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