WASHINGTON -- President Bush's explanations for Friday's airstrikes against Iraqi command and control centers represent a long-held misunderstanding of the original intention of the no-fly zones, namely protecting Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq and Shi'a Muslims in southern Iraq.
A Pentagon spokesman described the attacks as necessary to counter the increased frequency of Iraqi anti-air artillery and missile attacks against Anglo-American planes enforcing the no-fly zone. Mr. Bush described the strikes as a "routine mission" intended to make Saddam Hussein abide by the agreements he signed after the Persian Gulf war. The president added that the United States was going to "watch very carefully as to whether or not he develops weapons of mass destruction."
As his comments indicate, the issue of the zones has become intertwined with Iraq's noncompliance of its promise to dismantle and account for its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Unfortunately, by attacking the command and control centers which threaten their ability to patrol the no-fly zones, the United States and Britain may have damaged any near-term opportunity to have U.N. weapons inspectors reenter Iraq.
Iraq has opposed the inspection of its suspected WMD and ballistic missile program sites since December 1998, when the United States and Britain led an ineffectual four-day bombing campaign against the alleged WMD production sites after Iraq denied the U.N. inspectors open access.
In the last two years, no outside source has been able to determine the extent of Iraqi re-militarization, though reports of current anthrax production have been confirmed by U.N. officials. Given Iraq's historical interest in obtaining or developing WMD and WMD delivery systems, one would not imagine they have spent the last two years sitting on their hands.
The revamped U.N. inspection team, headed by the respected Hans Blix and renamed UNMOVIC (U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission), has been staffed and ready to enter Iraq for six months. Iraq has accepted the appointment of Mr. Blix, and the former Swedish foreign minister had indicated in the fall that he fully expected Iraq to permit his team to inspect the 300 sites in question soon.
With the election of Mr. Bush, Middle East watchers hoped for a positive diplomatic initiative to shake up the intractable Iraqi issue which he inherited from his father and President Clinton. Unfortunately, the first Bush administration statement concerning Iraq was a military one. While the president claimed the attacks were routine, they represented an escalation of the U.S. and British intent to patrol northern and southern Iraq at the expense of renewed weapons inspections.
As an almost unmentionable side note to the issue of enforcing the no-fly zones, Turkey, a U.S. ally and NATO member, has reportedly introduced at least 500 -- and as many as 10,000 -- ground troops up to 100 miles into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq since Dec. 20 for a military offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The State Department's latest report on Turkish human rights practices notes that Turkish ground operations into Iraq are routinely conducted "with air support."
Such air support violates the no-fly zone, constituted above the 36th parallel in April 1991 with the expressed intent of creating a "safe haven" for Kurdish refugees. Though Turkey claims that its operations into northern Iraq are to target PKK terrorists, its inability, or disinterest, in determining Kurdish rebels from the Kurdish civilians has been exhaustively documented by international observers.
For the sake of consistency, the Bush administration should acknowledge it is overlooking Turkish violations of the no-fly zone.
For the security of the region and the world, it should also work to insist UNMOVIC be permitted to resume international weapons inspections in exchange for more targeted and less burdensome sanctions.
Although their movement and access was sometimes limited, from 1991 to 1998 U.N. inspectors did more to eliminate the weapons programs of Iraq than the airstrikes of 1993, 1996, 1998, or Friday's. With his actions, Mr. Bush has temporarily demonstrated the resolve of the shrunken Persian Gulf war coalition.
The likelihood that Iraq will match the airstrikes by capitulating over the matter of inspections are nil. The vacuum of information inside Iraq remains. Speaking to reporters after the strikes, Bush noted that "our intention is to make sure that the world is as peaceful as possible."
Don't hold your breath.
Micah Zenko is a researcher in the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy organization.