The War before the War: Britain and the US Carried out a Secret Bombing Campaign against Iraq Months before the Tanks Went over the Border in March 2003. Michael Smith Pieces Together the Evidence

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Page by relentless page, evidence has been stacking up for many months to show that--despite Tony Blair's denials--the British government signed up for war in Iraq almost a year before the invasion. What most people will not have realised until now, however, was that Britain and the US waged a secret war against Iraq for months before the tanks rolled over the border in March 2003. Documentary evidence and ministerial answers in parliament reveal the existence of a clandestine bombing campaign designed largely to provoke Iraq into taking action that could be used to justify the start of the war.

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In the absence of solid legal grounds for war, in other words, the allies tried to bomb Saddam Hussein into providing their casus belli. And when that didn't work they just stepped up the bombing rate, in effect starting the conflict without telling anyone.

The main evidence lies in leaked documents relating to a crucial meeting chaired by the Prime Minister in July 2002--the documents which supported the Sunday Times story, published during this past election campaign, about how Blair promised George W Bush in April that year that Britain would back regime change.

A briefing paper for the ministers and officials at the meeting--this was in effect a British war cabinet--laid out two alternative US war plans. The first, a "generated start", involved a slow build-up of roughly 250,000 troops in Kuwait. Allied aircraft would then mount an air war, which would be followed by a full-scale invasion. The second option was a "running start", in which a continuous air campaign, "initiated by an Iraqi casus belli", would be mounted without any overt military build-up. Allied special forces giving support to Iraqi opposition groups on the ground would be joined by further troops as and when they arrived in theatre, until the regime collapsed. A few days after the meeting, the Americans opted for a hybrid of the two in which the air war would begin, as for a running start, as soon as the Iraqis provided the justification for war, while at the same time an invasion force would be built up, as for a generated start.

The record of the July meeting in London, however, contains a revealing passage in which Geoff Hoon, then defence secretary, tells his colleagues in plain terms that "the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime". What is meant by "spikes of activity" becomes clear in the light of information elicited from the government by the Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell, who asked the Ministry of Defence about British and American air activity in 2002 in the southern no-fly zone of Iraq--the zone created to protect southern Shias after Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed their 1991 uprising against him.

The MoD response shows that in March 2002 no bombs were dropped, and in April only 0.3 tonnes of ordnance used. The figure rose to 7.3 tonnes in May, however, then to 10.4 in June, dipping to 9.5 in July before rising again to 14.1 in August. Suddenly, in other words, US and British air forces were in action over Iraq.

What was going on? There were very strict rules of engagement in the no-fly zones. The allied pilots were authorised to fire missiles at any Iraqi air defence weapon or radar that fired at them or locked on to their aircraft. As was noted in Foreign Office legal advice appended to the July 2002 briefing paper, they were only "entitled to use force in self-defence where such a use of force is a necessary and proportionate response to actual or imminent attack from Iraqi ground systems".

That May, however, Donald Rumsfeld had ordered a more aggressive approach, authorising allied aircraft to attack Iraqi command and control centres as well as actual air defences. The US defence secretary later said this was simply to prevent the Iraqis attacking allied aircraft, but Hoon's remark gives the game away. …