A "no-fly zone" (NFZ) is airspace over a country or region through which other aircraft (ones not involved in policing the zone) are disallowed travel. Usually a security measure, whether during a time of crisis or war—or following one. It can, and often does, function as a demilitarized zone—at least for aircraft, though an additional function can be as a means to protect the area (population and property) from ground assaults of one kind or another.

NFZs have been implemented numerous times before, including in the Balkans during the 1990s (NATO) and over several major cities in the United States following the attacks on 11 September 2001. Perhaps the best known NFZ was the one(s) enforced over Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War and in place through the 2003 Gulf War.

The ceasefire began on 28 February 1991 (midnight US Eastern Standard Time). Shortly after, terms were negotiated. Iraq accepted the terms on 6 April and an official ceasefire took effect on 11 April. Meanwhile, United Nations Security Council Resolution 668 was passed (5 April) offering a condemnation of the repression of the Iraqi people, calling for an end, demanding "immediate access by international humanitarian efforts" to help those in need (earlier specifically mentioning the Kurds), and "[appealing] to all Member States and to all humanitarian organizations to contribute to these humanitarian efforts." There was a request that the Secretary-general "use all the resources at his disposal, including those of the relevant United Nations agencies, to address urgently the critical needs of the refugees and displaced Iraqi population."

Operation Provide Comfort was begun in the North, in order to address those needs of the primarily Kurdish population. Within two weeks of the passing of UNSCR 688, the northern NFZ was created by the US, United Kingdom, and France, covering everything north of the 36th parallel (it would later be renamed Operation Northern Watch; the RAF portion called Operation Warden). This was supposed to create a "safe haven" for the Kurds and other Iraqi civilians. The following year (August 1992), another NFZ was established in the South, encompassing everything south of the 32nd parallel (this was expanded by the US to the 33rd in September 1996). The southern zone was put in place to protect the population (mostly Shi'i Iraqis, though also made up of large number of Internally Displaced Persons—Iraqi refugees from elsewhere in the country) which had suffered not only the longstanding repression but had suffered a brutal suppression when they rose up to challenge Saddam Hussein's regime after the Gulf War.

The NFZs covered about one-third of the territory and effectively made about 60% of Iraq off-limits to Iraqi planes (originally domestic commercial flights as well and virtually all international flights to and from the country). France ended its operation in the North in December 1996 and in the South in December 1998, following Operation Desert Fox, a 70-hour bombing campaign that was said to be "To degrade Saddam Hussein's ability to make and to use weapons of mass destruction. To diminish Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war against his neighbors. To demonstrate to Saddam Hussein the consequences of violating international obligations" according to the US Department of Defense (www.defenselink.mil). This was also a punitive measure due to the recalcitrance, lies, and footdragging by the Iraqi government in relation to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) arms inspectors.

Statistics concerning the extent of operations
According to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of sorties flown by the US and UK forces (northern and southern NFZs) through 31 August 2000 was 199,541. An oddly specific number and a source many would find questionable. US and UK sources suggest that it isn't far off. Just in the year between April 1999 and March 2000, the RAF flew 2,683 sorties (450 in the North and 2,223 in the South). During the period, it claimed that it was "threatened" 320 times and responded in self-defense 74 times. Between December 1998 and August 2000, the RAF dropped some 780 tonnes of bombs on Iraq.

That is only a snapshot. During the same eight month period alluded to, the US flew 24,000 missions in the South alone. A better overview comes from the Pentagon (as reported in the 16 June 2000 Washington Post), where it is claimed there have been over 280,000 sorties—many more than claimed by Iraq a few months later.

An idea of the great cost of the enterprise can be seen in the UK's £911 million expenditure for all Gulf related costs between 1992 and 2001 (the final yearly cost—2000-2001—is an estimate). While it is true that over half (£551 million) was during the first year, in subsequent years the NFZ expenses were the lion's share. The lowest was £6 million during the 1996-1997 year. Even more expensive was the US contribution, which during the fiscal year 1999-2000, it spent $1.4 billion to cover only the southern NFZ. Each mission was estimated to cost around $750,000.

Legality and justification
Discussions about the NFZs usually were prefaced by "UN mandated" or a similar appellation suggesting both international consent/support and/or legitimacy under international law. A few examples:

  • "The world has tried no-fly zones to keep Saddam from terrorizing his own people—and in the last year alone, the Iraqi military has fired upon American and British pilots more than 750 times"
    President George W. Bush, in a speech 7 October 2002
  • "His regime on almost a daily basis continues to fire missiles and artillery at US and coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq, and has made clear its objective of shooting down coalition pilots enforcing UN resolutions...."
    US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, September 2002 testimony regarding Iraq
  • "...the no-fly zones [are] very important to protect the people of Iraq from its dictatorship, which has so blatantly and completely brutalized and terrorized it. We have been enforcing no-fly zones since 1991. The coalition created them in accordance with [U.N.] Resolution 688, as well as Resolution 678 and 687. We are acting pursuant to those resolutions."
    US State Department Spokesman James Rubin, press briefing 5 January 1999
  • "Whereas the current Iraqi regime has demonstrated its continuing hostility toward, and willingness to attack, the United States, including by attempting in 1993 to assassinate former President Bush and by firing on many thousands of occasions on United States and Coalition Armed Forces engaged in enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council...."1
    US Congress' Joint Resolution to Authorize the use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq (approved 16 October 2002)
  • "...we have conducted patrols of the no-fly zones since the early 1990s in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 688, which demanded an end to his brutal repression."
    [British] Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon, House of Commons 26 February 2001
  • "Since the war's end in 1991, US and other allied coalition pilots have enforced UN-mandated no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq."
    [US] American Forces Press Service, March 1999
  • "A BBC correspondent says the incident illustrates the continuing tension arising from the UN mandated no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, in which Iraqi aircraft are forbidden to fly."
    BBC News 1 July 1998

The problem is that no UN resolution mandates or even approves of the NFZs. They were imposed solely by the participants and maintained by them only. Even a generous (mis)reading of UNSCR 688 would still require a formal resolution to okay the NFZs. No such resolution exists. Further, Security Council resolutions 686 (setting out the preliminary terms of the ceasefire), 687 (the formal ceasefire declaration), and 688 all include "Affirming the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Kuwait and Iraq," things clearly violated by the NFZs.

Additionally, for those claiming justification under 688, the resolution does not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter ("Actions with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression") in which "Security Council"—the council, not two or three members—" shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" (Article 39). Further articles outline the procedure for identifying the potential need to take action and actually acting, including the necessary establishment of a Military Staff Committee, which is responsible for the planning of the "application of armed force" (Article 46; also see 47). Even if only "some" of the Security Council members take part, it is the Council that will make the determination. Either way, there is no standing under 688 for the implementation of the NFZs.

In that case, the international law that does seem to apply, comes from relevant parts of the charter, such as "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations" from Article 2, number 4. Or "All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered" (number 3)

There is some discrepancy over the justification. In 2001, Defence Secretary Hoon claimed that "the legal justification for the patrolling of the no-fly zones does not rest on Security Council Resolution 688" that "in terms of humanitarian justification, we are entitled to patrol the no-fly zones to prevent grave humanitarian crisis. That is the legal justification in international law," though he added that 688 "supports the position we have adopted" (House of Commons Debate 26 February 2001). A year earlier he said that "there is clear justification in international law for the international community to respond to protect people where they are threatened by an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe," that the NFZs were "based on the overwhelming humanitarian necessity...combined with the need to monitor effects of 688." He stated that both together are the justification (Defence Select Committee meeting 9 April 2000). There is no "entitlement" nor is the case of a humanitarian crisis "legal" or "clear" justification under international law for military action without the authority of the Security Council. Nor was the "international community" either responding or supporting the NFZs, including fellow permanent Security Council members China, Russia, and (former participant) France.

The US has a number of additional reasons it gives for "justification" and the mission intent. In September 2000, Commander-in-Chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Tommy Franks—who would later run the 2003 war in Iraq—listed the reasons for continuing the NFZs:

  • Limit training opportunities for the Iraqi air force, thus helping to degrade Iraq's military capability
  • Provide an additional warning margin in the southern zone against Iraqi threats to Kuwait
  • Benefit the US policy of containment
  • Offer protection to Iraq's minority populations
  • Provide a constant reminder of coalition resolve
  • Improve intelligence concerning Iraqi forces
    (Formal witness statement before Senate Committee on Armed forces; formatting preserved from www.caabu.org)

A variation on the protection theme can be seen in the words of the Director of Operations for the Joint Staff Lieutenant-General Martin Brandtner: "The purpose of establishing the no-fly zone—and I would emphasize it's a no-fly zone, not a security zone—is to ensure the safety of coalition aircraft monitoring compliance with United Nations Security Resolution 688" (Washington Post 27 August 1992). There is no mention of actually protecting anyone, simply monitoring. It also seems that the monitoring was apparently performed primarily by combat aircraft. Since the humanitarian measures were supposed to be on the ground, a NFZ would not help implementation of those.

And the threat? To justify (not speaking in legal terms) a NFZ, there must be a threat and/or security issue involved. Even ignoring Brandtner's claim that it was not a "security zone," one should assess the threat. After the end of the Gulf War, Iraq's air force was hamstrung. The majority of the planes were destroyed and after years of sanctions, the existing ones fell into disrepair or were cannibalized for parts to fix other aircraft. According to Director of GlobalSecurity.org and military consultant John Pike, "Most of Iraq's air force was destroyed in the last Gulf War. They had several hundred aircraft at the beginning of this year. Most of those aircraft were not in flyable condition and were parked in a single airfield west of Baghdad. I have not heard any reports of any of those airplanes taking off." This was said in an interview for ABCNEWS 3 April 2003.

One concern had been the helicopters (originally purchased from the US) that Hussein was allowed to keep following the Gulf War. It was with those helicopters that he had been able to put down the Shi'i uprising in the South. It seems that the closest thing to a "justifiable" threat were the helicopters—if they were being used to repress the people of Iraq. If that was the case, then the NFZs would have worked, despite their illegality under international law. As the record shows, there seems to have been little effect on the repression in the south and only some in the north (primarily early on).

The intention to degrade the air defenses of Iraq is commonly discussed and probably more important, given the drive to 'finish what we started' which was in place among many (especially those who became part of George W. Bush's administration) that eventually led to war. It later became an admitted part of the policy. Though even the misreading of 688 gives no justification for Franks' other points. It says nothing of curtailing air force training or degrading the airforce/airdefenses, containment, "coalition resolve," or intelligence gathering. And by 2000 (indeed, earlier) there was no substantive reason to believe Iraq posed a threat of invading or attacking Kuwait.

Following a heavy attack on Iraqi radar sites (in what was called a "routine mission to enforce the no-fly zone") on 16 February 2001, CNN was told by an official of the Bush administration that "the targets were struck pursuant to existing policy." Though with the exception of Desert Fox and the attack on Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad as a result of the alleged plot to kill George Bush, policy was not to hit targets outside of the NFZ, which was what happened on 16 February. This, of course, violates the UN Charter and 686, 687, and 688 which all assert Iraq's territorial sovereignty.

The official went on to say that "The policy allows us to take out assets that threaten our forces. The president was aware of and approved the action." The threat comes from Iraq defending its sovereign territory, as allowed under the UN Charter (and the resolutions), from illegal incursion of foreign aircraft (however one feels about the Iraqi government, these are the facts of the matter). Prior to Desert Fox, there was little action taken against "coalition" aircraft. Following the intense bombing of the operation, Iraq decided to act against the combat aircraft flying over its territory. The threat to aircraft was there precisely because they were there violating international law.

In the same CNN report, Secretary Rumsfeld is quoted as saying "The objective of today's mission by coalition forces was to degrade Iraqi air defense capabilities and thus reduce the threat posed to coalition aircraft and aircrews." This same threat would also be posed in the event of a war and it is no coincidence that in the days and weeks leading up to the second Gulf War, bombing intensified (pilots had for years practiced locking on to potential targets). In 2001, General Franks made it quite clear that they were looking toward the possibility, when before Congress, he testified that, among other things, the NFZs were intended to "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" (Iraq Journal)

Humanitarian reasons were not the only justification. Especially given the statement by a US Defense Department spokesman in February 1999 that targets—even then—included "missile sites, anti-aircraft sites, command and control sites, relay stations and some intelligence gathering sites" (MERIP). Britain acknowledged the same the following month. This, despite Secretary Hoon's claim that "our mission is to supervise the NFZs. Our mission is not—and I must emphasize this—to bomb assets on the ground...if our aircraft did not come under fire we would not need to conduct any kind of bombing of targets on the ground.

Ministry of Defence data show that all the weapons used by both countries as a response in the southern NFZ between November 2000 and January 2001 were against Iraq's air defense systems. As observed by member of parliament and the liberal democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs and defence Menzies Campbell, "The continuing operations seem to be more designed to degrade Saddam Hussein's air defence systems than to fulfill the role of humanitarian protector" (The Guardian 11 November 2000).

A final note on the legality. The joint congressional resolution "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution" (12 January 1991) specifically notes that "Nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution." The resolution (intended as a check against wielding the presidential authority as commander-in-chief rather than as a green light for action) deals with "introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicate by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situation." It notes that constitutionally, the president can only act in instances "pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," none of which cover the NFZ—claiming that the planes policing the NFZ come under attack, therefore qualifying would be ignoring that the planes would need justification under the resolution to be there in the first place.

Pretend that the NFZs do qualify under the resolution. In order to involve troops and continue to do so the president has certain congressional requirements: "so long as such armed forces continue to be engaged in such hostilities or situation, report to the Congress periodically on the status of such hostilities or situation as well as on the scope and duration of such hostilities or situation, but in no event shall he report to the Congress less often than once every six months." This was never done. Further, following each 60-day period, the action must be terminated unless Congress declares war (or other specific authorization or extends it by another 60 days—problematic, but still requiring specific legislation). If Congress cannot convene "as a result of an armed attack upon the United States," then the president may get an extension "for not more than an additional thirty days" with a written certification to Congress that "unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces." None of these points of law were even nominally followed.

Casualties and efficacy
The bombings killed. Setting aside the illegality and any Iraqi military casualties, the civilian population—the ones ostensibly being protected from repression (if one accepts the 688 claim)—did indeed suffer at the hands of "coalition" forces. Of course the "coalition" assured everyone that there would be careful attention paid to limiting casualties and not bombing civilians. Throughout the years of the NFZs statistics were given numerous times, the US and UK generally ignoring or denying them—granted that some came Iraqi sources, but across the board denial is self-serving. As is the contention that the regime might be bombing its citizens in order to claim they were killed by "coalition" pilots. Iraqi news sources did regularly spew state propaganda and it would serve Hussein's interests for there to be casualties, but—again—denial without evidence and ignoring the issue speak loudly about the purported "humanitarian" reasons for the NFZs.

And they admit they have no idea what the casualties might have been. A spokesman for Operation Northern Watch explained that "It's one thing to fly and spot a big thing of weapons and somewhere. It's another thing to fly, get shot at, drop a bomb, try to take evasive action, get out of there and look to see if a body gets hit.... We couldn't even begin to give you a number." Nor was there much effort to confirm reports of casualties. As far as the US military was concerned, any casualties were entirely the fault of Hussein. And it isn't that there can't be some blame assigned. Installations were often placed in close proximity of civilian buildings and residences. Yet knowing that, the "coalition" did nothing to minimize the potential human cost to those civilians—in the words of another Northern Watch spokesman, "just because he puts something next to a church, or near a mosque, or near a children's school, doesn't mean we're not going to defend ourselves and fire at it. And if kids dies, or people die, or civilians dies, it's on his head, not ours" (www.motherjones.com 2).

Denial. All due consideration to civilians must be made and they must be protected from unnecessary danger. International law should apply regardless of the illegality of the NFZs and one must be held responsible for the predictable consequences of one's actions. If one is knowingly taking actions that will certainly result in the deaths of civilians, that action should be avoided and alternative action taken. Self-defense or not, the deaths of the civilians is a shared responsibility of Iraq and the planes bombing the country. If one recalls that the NFZs are illegal under international law, the UN Charter, and the US constitution, the mentality held by the military (acting under the "authority" of the Bush-Clinton-Bush II administrations) is all the more disturbing.

Following Desert Fox, the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (people actually on the ground and not taking evasive action in the sky) decided to note incidents of casualties and property damage in the NFZs. In the approximately five months between 28 December 1998 and 31 May 1999, it was determined that there was bombing on 61 out of 155 days, 25 days on which occurred casualties. During that time around 73 civilians died and 257 were injured (31/58 in the North and 42/199 in the South). Deaths took place in 20 locations and casualties in 26 (at least three cases were directly verified by the UN) and 65 houses—not radar installations or missile launching areas—were destroyed.

Hans von Sponeck, the coordinator for the UN humanitarian activities in Iraq (1998-2000) began issuing reports to Secretary-general Kofi Annan every three months stating in 1999. In that year alone, he logged 132 bombings resulting in casualties (120 dead, 442 injured). For his trouble, he was reprimanded by the US and UK for "straying from his mandate." The Clinton administration tried to get him removed from his post. Sponeck finally resigned in protest. His replacement (as reported to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), had no plans to continue the investigations. By 2002, the UN was estimating about 300 deaths between 1998 and 2002 (Iraq was reporting at least 400).

There is the counter that the NFZs were protecting the Iraqi citizens from repression. But that doesn't bear up under the evidence. As Sporeck bluntly put it, "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 the bombing." In fact, they are also dying in spite of the bombing.

Northern NFZ
As can be recalled, the 688 justification was to protect the people from repression. By policing the NFZs, the aim was supposed to keep Iraqi military forces from attacking civilians. Since there was little threat from the air force, how effective was it against ground forces? Very little it seems. In fact, ground attacks against Iraqis and Kurds continued. And as for the NFZ line in the sand, former Secretary of State James Baker admitted in 1996 that "there was never any effort to put a specific prohibition against [Iraqi] forces moving north of the 36th parallel" (www.caabu.org). So much for Northern Watch.

That same year, Iraqi forces moved troops into the Erbil (also spelled Irbil or Arbil), killing and forcing to flee large numbers of Kurds (many who were opposition forces supported by the CIA). It also resulted in UN aid personnel to leave the area. Rather than opposing this military action against the repressed people, the US ignored it militarily and attacked targets in the South (extending the southern NFZ at that time). The Kurds were well aware of the humanitarian protection offered by the "coalition" after the US had its soldiers stand down following the Gulf War while Iraqi forces massacred them in large numbers.

They were also aware that the NFZs did not apply to Turkish forces who made periodic incursions to attack (by ground and air) alleged Kurdish separatists as part of its own ongoing repression.2 Turkey made numerous incursions (starting in 1992) over Iraq's supposedly sovereign border involving as many as 50,000 troops at one time. No effort was made to ensure humanitarian support for the Kurds then. Of course, Turkey—a longtime US ally and recipient of US arms (almost %9 billion worth between 1991 and 2001)—was also providing the use of the Incirlik air base (an arrangement that needed renewal every six months) for "coalition" aircraft, giving another reason to overlook its "indiscretions."

In a State Department press briefing (5 September 1996) spokesman Glyn Davies was asked why Turkey was allowed to make its incursions and "What does this say about your support for Iraqi territorial integrity?" Rather than answering the question, he dodged trying to suggest that yes, the US did recognize the sovereignty of the boundaries (implying all was covered under the UN resolutions), though perhaps not of Hussein's sovereignty over them, which the reporter questioned, making Davies stumble: "Maybe you're inventing kind of a new sovereignty." "Question: Well, generally the leader of the country has sovereignty over his nation. What you all are saying or doing is limiting his sovereignty over his nation, not the country's territorial integrity." Davies responded with "We, the international community, in a manner of speaking that's a fair way to describe some of the Security Council resolutions that have been passed with regard to Iraq." Not only is it not the "international community," but the resolutions say no such thing.

The northern NFZ did not even match up with the line to which the Iraqi forces withdrew after the Gulf War. Within it lies Mosul which was under government control while Sulaimaniyya and Kirkuk, two important cities to the Kurds (the former being the most populous city in the region controlled by the Kurds). Kirkuk, a key city in the oil industry, was also under government control and under a program of "Arabization," which resulted in expelling thousands (Amnesty International reported 94,000) ethnic Kurds and Turkmen, making them internally displaced persons.

Southern NFZ
The failing in the southern NFZ was worse. Part of the impetus in the South (using 688 as justification) was to prevent the massacres of Shi'i Muslims that took place during their uprising following the Gulf War. The Shi'i were ripe for rebelling against Hussein, having suffered, as other Iraqis, and many having been conscripted into fighting in the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. On 15 February 1991, President Bush gave a well-publicized statement that asked for "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." He repeated the appeal in another speech that day.

In March, the rebellion began, the people under the impression that they would be supported by the US and given the stockpiles of captured weapons from the Iraqi army. They were wrong. When they attempted to contact US forces, they were ignored and the weapons and munitions destroyed. The fatal blow to the uprising was the US lifting the overfly ban, which allowed Iraqi helicopters (which the US allowed Hussein to keep after the end of the conflict—something later admitted to have been a "mistake") to come in and put down the rebellion for good. Recurrent acts of repression and violence continued (in some cases increased) regardless of the NFZs. In the month of June 1999, over 1,000 people were arrested in the city of Basra, alone.

Worse than the attacks on the Shi'i Muslims were the ongoing war against the so-called "Marsh Arabs," Iraqis who live in the marshy areas near southern Iraq. Despite the "protection" offered by the NFZ, Iraq waged a war of attrition on the ground that has killed several thousand and made tens of thousands refugees in their own country (some fled the country) since 1991. It was estimated that at the start of the Gulf War there were close to 250,000 people living there and by 2001, around 20,000. Iraq built canals, hydroelectric facilities and drained the marshes leaving an environmental disater—the UN estimates about 90$ of the original marshlands have been destroyed. Houses and fields were burned and destroyed and periodic attacks by soldiers and artillery worked to slowly wipe out the people. All while the planes flew overhead "protecting" them.

By 1993, it was well-known what was happening. A Human Rights Watch report spoke of how the marshlands were surrounded by Iraqi troops, making it difficult to impossible to get food, medicine, or other aid to them (recall the NFZs—under the 688 claim—were supposed to help humanitarian aid). It was also reported to HRW that following the implementation of the NFZ, the "shelling of villages had tripled."

The US State Department, by 1993, was noting the damage being done in its "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices." It says that the NFZ was "imposed...to protect the Shi'a marsh dwellers from helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft." Apparently that was all it protected them from, since the Iraqis ("in defiance") "stepped up their use of land-based artillery to shell marsh villages." In 1994, it claimed the NFZ "continues to deter aerial attacks...but does not prevent artillery attacks or the military's large-scale burning of villages." In 1995, it notes "Iraqi armed forces conducted deliberate artillery attacks" against the civilians and repeated the "deter aerial attacks...burning operations" line. 1996 adds executions to the list and the same 'deterrence, but' claim. 1997, 1998, 1999, all the same, sometimes noting embargoes on the people, torture and mistreatment (including claims of rape) of detainees. In 2000, the reports stop talking about them specifically and speak of Shi'i Muslims in general (the cataloging of human rights violations becomes more detailed). The word "no-fly zone" does not appear in any report from 2000 to the present (current report being 2002).

While it is arguably true that the NFZ may have protected the people from helicopters (only a threat due the US "mistake"—though the state of the Iraqi gunships was the same as many of the planes following the years of sanctions) and aircraft, it is absurd to assert, as Defence Secretary Hoon did before the Defence Select committee that "The no-fly zones, in our view, have certainly prevented Saddam Hussein from carrying out the kind of overwhelming attacks that he perpetrated before 1992 and 1991 respectively." Then there is Secretary of State Baker, speaking in 1993, about how "Iraq's attacks on the marshes to date have stayed below the threshold set by the coalition forces." A certain amount of casualties were acceptable and not worthy to "significantly increase our military assets in the region and prepare to use them to force the Iraqi military out of the area" (www.caabu.org).

A NFZ was sufficient as long as Hussein bled the population dry rather than amputating them. Which is how the US and UK managed to "address urgently the critical needs of refugees and displaced persons" and "[contributed] to these humanitarian relief efforts" (688). In short, the NFZs were next to worthless in being used for what the claim was: enforcing (the misreading of) 688 and protecting the civilians from repression and violence. Yet they continued, contributing casualties of their own and softening up military targets (along with fields, sheep, and a few shepherds according to some human rights workers) for a later possible war with Iraq.

Despite the clear-cut violation of international law and deliberate misreading of UN Security Council resolutions, there was little condemnation or outcry from much of the world. What there was, was muted (and under- or unreported for the most part) or ignored. Not just the international community, but the UN failed to push the issue. On the other hand, what could be done? Any Security Council resolution involving the US or the UK would simply be vetoed away. One was introduced condemning the US invasion of Panama in 1989. With the expected result. Similarly, Turkey's incursions (as well as the numerous other resolutions it remains in violation of) were ignored. People looked away, feeling good about themselves because they were sticking it to Hussein. All while the people that they were purporting to protect, claiming to care deeply about, suffered as a result.

A human face

"At 9:30 in the morning we were sitting and I was teaching my children. ...then a big bomb happened. The glasses from 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 glass. Two of my children were with me.... But Haider and my other son, Mustafa, they were out in the street."

".... I saw the street was full of smoke and dust and it was like midnight. Then, I ran quickly and called my children.... I didn't find them."

".... 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 body. his head and the circle of blood on the ground. I didn't forget that. Never."

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

"I saw him, his eyes full of blood and his face and head full of injuries and blood. I tried to carry them both but I couldn't."
(Iraq Journal)

Ikbar Fartus' story. Her poor, Basra neighborhood (the street was later called "missile street") was struck by a satellite-guided cruise missile on 25 January 1999. Mustafa survived with shrapnel in his liver and two lost fingers. Six-year old Haider and 16 others died that day. Three others were also children.

1The legality (particularly with respect to the UN) of the NFZs is one of the common myths related to the Gulf War and subsequent dealings with Iraq. The other main ones are the claim that Iraq kicked/expelled the UN weapons inspectors in 1998 (they were pulled out just prior to Operation Desert Fox) and the 'babies removed from incubators' hoax that was concocted by Kuwaitis in the US with the help of a public relations firm and the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador who gave the "testimony" (doctors were also used as part of the hoax, claiming to have seen the "bodies"). Another myth is the alledged attempt on President Bush's life, which given the available evidence and circumstances surrounding the affair, is supposition, at best. It is interesting that both the assassination plot and the NFZs are part of the resolution supporting the war on Iraq. As is the still (May 2003) unproven contention that there are—in fact—both weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda. Even if found to be true, the resolution used myth, supposition, and speculation upon which to agree to go to war. Anyone concerned with the legality of such an enterprise should be at the very least highly concerned.

2Some certainly were separatists and some separatists have engaged in military and even arguably terrorist actions. Part of the problem—as is commonly the case in such matters—attacks on the Kurds were full of indiscriminate acts (displacing people, arbitrary arrest and detentions, razing of whole villages, as well as attacks resulting in civilain casualties) and assumed guilt by association. Nor does any of this justify the treatment of the Kurds in Turkey in the first place.

Primary sources
"Airstrikes routine in no-fly zones" 16 February 2001 CNN (www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/02/16/no.fly.zones)
"Bush: Iraq strikes part of 'strategy'" 17 February 2001 CNN (www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/02/16/iraq.airstrike.03
"Clinton's Other War" 6 April 1999 (www.motherjones.com/total_coverage/iraq.html)
"Iraq Was Being Bombed During 12 Years of Sanctions" www.globalissues.org/Geopolitics/MiddleEast/Iraq/Bombing.asp
"New York Times on Iraq Airstrikes: Zero dissent Allowed" 23 February 2001 FAIR (www.fair.org/activism/nyt-iraq-airstrikes.html)
"No Fly Zones" 4 December 2002 Iraq Journal (www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=11&ItemID=2700)
"The No Fly Zones Over Iraq: A Review" Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (www.caabu.org/press/briefings/no-fly-zones.html)
"No-Fly Zones: Rhetoric and Real Intentions" Middle East Research and Information Project MERIP (www.merip.org/mero/mero022001.html)
"Operation Desert Fox" US Department of Defense, official site (www.defenselink.mil/specials/desert_fox)
"Smart Bombs or Rocks for Brains?" 5 November 1999 (www.motherjones.com/news_wire/concrete.html; cited above as www.motherjones.com 2)
"Under Iraqi Skies, US Bombs Paint A Canvas of Civilian Death" 26 June 2000 Washington Post (www.commondreams.org/headlines/061600-01.htm)
Also: Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org), Human rights Country Practices (dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/democracy.html and www.state.gov/g/drl/hr/c1470.htm)

It's late, and perhaps in the coming days I can add citations in a (probably hopeless) attempt to match the excellent research of at the top of the node. Nor am I a lawyer; but even lay-persons have a duty to understand the law as best we can, even arcane complexities of International Law. So here goes:

The way I read the history books, the original no-fly zones, including the infamous helicopter exception, were negotiated in a tent in the desert by Stormin' Norman and the other coalition and Iraqi generals. This was simply a multi-lateral agreement between warring parties, to which the UN wasn't formally a party. Granted, there's no explicit granting of authority in the UN charter or and of resolutions for the Iraqi no-fly zones, but neither do they or any other aspect of International Law (which long predates the UN!) appear to prohibit parties from entering into, and enforcing, bi- or multi-lateral agreements. In short, my understanding is that Saddam, not the UN, agreed to the no-fly zones in order to stop the war and stay in power. Later UN resolutions such as 686 - 688 certainly don't appear to explicitly authorize no-fly zones. Not being a lawyer myself, I can only assert my strong suspicion that US lawyers were smart enough to craft those UN resolutions so that they didn't render the earlier, multilateral agreement entirely void...in which case the legal argument would be that in the earlier, non-UN cease-fire agreement, Iraq had exercised its prerogative to define its "sovereignty" in such a way as to accept overflights, so subsequent US resolutions requiring Iraqi sovereignty be respected are not violated by the overflights per se.

As to the bombing, in 1993, of targets in and around Baghdad, in response to the alleged plot to kill George Bush: clearly this bombing exceeds the definition of sovereignty that allows for no-fly zones. Here an argument would be self-defense of US sovereignty, which includes the person of the commander in chief, but only if you believe the plot was real. Another argument would be that Iraq had already violated the cease-fire, by directing surface-to-air targeting radar at overflight aircraft prior to 1993, in a ham-handed attempt to re-claim the sovereignty he'd given up in 1991 in order to stay in power. Under this second argument, the cease-fire was now void, and ongoing enforcement of the no-fly zones, and other operations besides, would be justified under Resolution 678 (1990), which authorized member states to apply "all necessary means".

And of course all these lovely legal arguments got trashed by the time the DOD and State Dept spokesmonkeys got filtered through the pressmonkeys to the public (monkeys, one and all!), resulting in soundbytes such as "The UN-mandated no-fly zones"...but the various statements to the press and the public do not in and of themselves have legal force.

One of the problems with international law is, as far as I know there is as yet no single, sovereign authority for deciding cases of international law. Traditionally, before the UN, I suppose treaty disputes would be resolved by diplomats, essentially a political exercise, or by arbitrators, for example in commercial disputes. These arbitrators based their authority on their reputations for independence and fairness. War Crimes would be adjudicated by tribunals whose jurisdiction and authority was limited to a particular conflict. Now we have the International Criminal Court, or ICC, which is designed to be the sovereign authority. However, former President Clinton declined to sign the treaty that would have establish the ICC's authority over the US military, and even if he had, the Senate probably would not have ratified it.

So that's my take on legal points. As to the wisdom, or lack thereof, of even bothering with no-fly zones, I refer you to my The United States is Already At War With Iraq.

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