Nick Turse: America’s Secret Air War in Iraq


Richard Moore

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Tomgram: Nick Turse, America's Secret Air War in Iraq

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Just last week, in a typical air strike of the Iraq War, two missiles were fired
at targets somewhere in the city of Ramadi, capital of al-Anbar province in the 
heartland of the Sunni insurgency, in the course of a battle with American 
forces stationed there. According to newspaper accounts, "18 insurgents" were 

Air power has, since World War II, been the American way of war. The invasion of
Iraq began, after all, with a dominating show of air power that was meant to 
"shock and awe" -­ that is, cow -- not just Saddam Hussein's regime, but the 
whole "axis of evil" and other countries the Bush administration had in its 
mental gun sights. Among the largest of America's "permanent" megabases in Iraq 
is Balad Air Base with the sorts of daily air-traffic pile-ups that you would 
normally see over Chicago's O'Hare Airport. And yet, as has 
written numerous times over these last years, reporters in Iraq almost 
determinedly refuse to look up or report on the regular, if intermittent, 
application of American air power especially to heavily populated neighborhoods 
in Iraq's cities.

Now, the Bush "surge" is officially beginning. Little about it is strikingly new
or untried -- except possibly the unspoken urge to ratchet up the use of air 
power in Iraq, the only thing a Pentagon with desperately overstretched ground 
forces really has to throw into the escalation breach (as in recent months it 
has drastically escalated the use of air power in Afghanistan). Pepe Escobar, 
the superb globe-trotting correspondent for Asia Times, has recently warned that
the new Bush administration "plan" signals "the dire prospect... of a 
devastating air war over Baghdad" in which "Iraqification-cum-surge" will prove 
"a disaster mostly for every Baghdadi caught in the crossfire."

Just last week, Julian E. Barnes of the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S.
Air Force has the Iraqi itch and is getting ready to scratch it. Air Force 
commanders are preparing for a "heightened role in the volatile region." They 
are, he reported, already "gearing up for just such a role in Iraq as part of 
Bush's planned troop increase" -- an expansion of air power that "could include 
aggressive new tactics designed to deter Iranian assistance to Iraqi militantsŠ 
[and] more forceful patrols by Air Force and Navy fighter planes along the 
Iran-Iraq border to counter the smuggling of bomb supplies from Iran."

Until now, U.S. air power in Iraq has been a non-story -- if you weren't an 
Iraqi. In the coming months, however, it may force its way onto the front pages 
of our papers and onto the nightly TV news -- but not if the Pentagon has 
anything to say about it. Doing some journalistic sleuthing, Nick Turse has 
discovered just how secretive the Pentagon has been about offering any 
significant information on the size, scope, and damage involved in its air 
operations over Iraq. The story of this secret American air war is now told for 
the first time -- and at this website. Tom

Bombs over Baghdad
The Pentagon's Secret Air War in Iraq
By Nick Turse

A secret air war is being waged in Iraq -- often in and around that country's 
population centers -- about which we can find out little. The U.S. military 
keeps information on the munitions expended in its air efforts under tight 
wraps, refusing to offer details on the scale of use and so minimizing the 
importance of air power in Iraq. But expert opinion holds that the forms of 
aerial assault being employed in that country, though hardly covered in our 
media, may account for most of the U.S. and coalition-attributed Iraqi civilian 
deaths there since the 2003 invasion.

While some aspects of the air war remain a total mystery, Air Force officials do
acknowledge that U.S. military and coalition aircraft dropped at least 111,000 
pounds of bombs on targets in Iraq in 2006. This figure, 177 bombs in all, does 
not include guided missiles and unguided rockets fired, or cannon rounds 
expended; nor, according to a U.S. Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) 
spokesman, does it take into account the munitions used by some Marine Corps and
other coalition aircraft or any of the Army's helicopter gunships. Moreover, it 
does not include munitions used by the armed helicopters of the many private 
security contractors flying their own missions in Iraq.

Air War, Iraq: 2006

In statistics provided to Tomdispatch, CENTAF reported a total of 10,519 "close 
air support missions" in Iraq in 2006, during which its aircraft dropped 177 
bombs and fired 52 "Hellfire/Maverick missiles." These air strikes presumably 
included numerous highly publicized missions ranging from the January air strike
outside the town of Baiji that reportedly "killed a family of 12," including at 
least three women and three young children, to the December attack on an 
insurgent safehouse in the Garma area, near Fallujah, that reportedly killed 
"two women and a child" in addition to five guerillas. Then there were the even 
less well remembered events, such as those on July 28th when, according to 
official reports, an Air Force Predator unmanned aerial vehicle destroyed an 
"anti-Iraqi forces" vehicle with Hellfire missiles, while Air Force F-16 
Fighting Falcons "expended a GBU-12, destroying an anti-Iraqi forces location," 
both in the vicinity of the city of Ramadi.

The latter weapon, Guided Bomb Unit-12, a laser-guided bomb with a 500-pound 
general purpose warhead, was the most frequently used bomb in Iraq in 2006, 
according CENTAF statistics provided to Tomdispatch. In addition to the 
ninety-five GBU-12s "expended," sixty-seven satellite-guided, 500-pound GBU-38s 
and fifteen 2,000-pound GBU-31/32 munitions were also dropped on Iraqi targets 
last year, according to official Air Force figures.

One weapon conspicuously left out of this total is rockets -- such as the 
2.75-inch Hydra-70 rocket which can be outfitted with various warheads and is 
fired from fixed-wing aircraft and most helicopters. The number of rockets fired
is withheld from the press so as, according to a CENTAF spokesman, not to "skew 
the tally and present an inaccurate picture of the air campaign." The number of 
rockets fired may be quite significant as, according to a 2005 press release 
issued by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who helped secure a $900 million Hydra 
contract from the Army for General Dynamics, "the widely used Hydra-70 rocketŠ 
has seen extensive use in Afghanistan and IraqŠ [and] has become the world's 
most widely used helicopter-launched weapon system." Early last year, Sandra I. 
Erwin of National Defense Magazine noted that the U.S. military was looking to 
the Hydra to serve as a low-cost weapon for Iraq's urban areas. "The Army 
already buys and stockpiles thousands of the 2.75-inch Hydra rockets, and is 
seeking to equip as many as 73,000 with the laser kits, under a program called 
'advanced precision kill weapon system,' or APKWS. The Navy would purchase 8,000
for Marine Corps helicopters," she wrote.

The number of cannon rounds fired -- some models of the AC-130 gunship, for 
instance, have a Gatling gun that can fire up to 1,800 rounds in a single 
minute-- is also a closely guarded secret. The official reason given is that 
"special forces often use aircraft such as the AC-130" and since "their missions
and operations are classified, so therefore these figures are not released."

Repeated inquiries concerning another reporter's statistics on cannon rounds 
fired by CENTAF aircraft prompted the same official to emphatically state in an 
email: "WE DO NOT REPORT CANNON ROUNDS." His superior officer, Lt. Col. Johnn 
Kennedy, the Deputy Director of CENTAF Public Affairs, followed up, noting:

Glad to see you appreciate the tremendous efforts [my subordinate] has already 
expended on you. Trust me, it's probably much more significant than the 
relentless pursuit of the number of cannon rounds.

But the number of cannon rounds and rockets fired by U.S. aircraft is not an 
insignificant matter, according to Les Roberts, formerly an epidemiologist for 
the World Health Organization in Rwanda during that country's civil war and an 
expert on the human costs of the war in Iraq. According to Roberts, who was last
in Iraq in 2004 (where, he says, he personally witnessed "the shredding of 
entire blocks" in Baghdad's Sadr City by aerial cannon fire), "rocket and cannon
fire could account for most coalition-attributed civilian deaths." He adds, "I 
find it disturbing that they will not release this [figure], but even more 
disturbing that they have not released such information to Congressmen who have 
requested it."

Non-CENTAF military officials were equally tight-lipped about such munitions -- 
at least with me. A Public Affairs officer from U.S. Central Command told me 
that the Command didn't track such information. When I questioned a coalition 
spokesman in Baghdad about the number of rockets and cannon rounds fired by Army
and Marine Corps helicopters in Iraq in 2006, I was told, "We cannot comment on 
your inquiry due to operational security."

I then pointed out that just last month, in National Defense Magazine, Col. 
Robert A. Fitzgerald, the Marine Corps' head of aviation plans and policy, was 
quoted as saying that, in 2006, "Marine rotary-wing aircraft flew more than 
60,000 combat flight hours, and fixed-wing platforms completed 31,000. They 
dropped 80 tons of bombs and fired 80 missiles, 3,532 rockets and more than 2 
million rounds of smaller ammunition."

When asked if this admission had endangered operational security, the spokesman 
responded, "I cannot comment on the policies or release authority of a Marine 

While the Marine Corps' statistics presumably include totals of munitions used 
in Afghanistan, where American air power has played a large role in the 
fighting, they do remind us that the minimal figures given out by CENTAF don't 
give an accurate picture of the air war in Iraq. These particular totals are, 
according CENTAF, "separate from the data provided" to Tomdispatch on Iraqi bomb
and missile expenditure in 2006.

"Relentless Pursuit"

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the American air war in Iraq, often 
targeting urban areas, has been given remarkably short shrift in the media. In 
2004, Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch, called attention to this glaring 
absence. Seymour Hersh's seminal piece of reportage, "Up in the Air," published 
in the New Yorker in late 2005, ushered in some mainstream attention to the 
subject. Articles by Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who covered the 
American occupation and war in Iraq, before and after the Hersh piece, are among
the smattering of pieces that have offered glimpses of the air campaign and its 
impact. To date, however, the mainstream media has not, to use the words of Lt. 
Col. Kennedy, engaged in a "relentless pursuit of the number of cannon rounds" 
fired or any other aspect of the air war or its consequences for the people of 

While we will undoubtedly never know the full extent of the human costs of the 
U.S. air campaign, just a few dogged reporters assigned to the air-power beat 
might, at the very least, have offered some sense of this one-sided air war. 
Since this has not been the case, we must rely on the best available evidence. 
One valuable source is a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of 
mortality in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Carried out by epidemiologists at 
Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and Iraqi 
physicians organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, it estimated 
655,000 "excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war." The study, published 
in the British medical journal, The Lancet, in October 2006, found that from 
March 2003 to June 2006, 13% of violent deaths in Iraq were caused by coalition 
air strikes. If the 655,000 figure, including over 601,000 violent deaths, is 
anywhere close to accurate -- and the study offered a possible range of civilian
deaths that ran from 392,979 to 942,636 -- this would equal approximately 78,133
Iraqis killed by bombs, missiles, rockets, or cannon rounds from coalition 
aircraft between March 2003 when the invasion of Iraq began and last June when 
the study concluded.

There are indications that the U.S. air war has taken an especially grievous 
toll on Iraqi children. According to statistics provided to Tomdispatch by The 
Lancet study's authors, 50% of all violent deaths of Iraqi children under 15 
years of age, between March 2003 and June 2006, were due to coalition air 

The Lancet study used well-established survey methods, which have been proven in
conflict zones from Kosovo to the Congo, and interviewers actually inspected 
death certificates from 92% of the households surveyed where they were requested
(which they did 87% of the time). The Iraq Body Count Project, a group of 
researchers based in the United Kingdom who maintain a public database of Iraqi 
civilian deaths resulting from the war, carefully restricts itself to the 
sparser media reports of civilian fatalities that come out of Iraq. While a much
lower number (currently the range of media-reported deaths stands at: 
55,441-61,133) than the The Lancet's findings, an analysis of their carefully 
limited data also offers a glimpse of the human costs of the air war.

Statistics provided to Tomdispatch by the Iraq Body Count Project show that 
since the U.S. invasion in 2003, coalition air strikes have, according to media 
sources alone -- which as we know have covered the air war poorly -- caused 
between 15,593-17,067 Iraqi civilian casualties, including 3,625-4,093 deaths. 
Last year, media reports listed between 169-200 Iraqis killed and 111-112 
injured in twenty-eight separate coalition air strikes, according to the IBC 

These numbers also appear to be on the rise. In an email message to Tomdispatch 
last month, John Sloboda, the co-founder and spokesperson for the IBC Project, 
notes that the "vast majority [of lethal air strikes] have been in the last half
of the year."

When asked about the modest air power casualty figures provided by the Iraq Body
Count Project and whether CENTAF accepts them, Lt. Col. Kennedy dodged the 
question, telling Tomdispatch, "We do not track such numbers and so cannot 
comment on the Project's efforts or validity." He had a similar answer when it 
came to The Lancet study's findings.

Asked about the assertion that the second half of 2006 was much deadlier for 
Iraqis due to U.S. air strikes and the possible reasons for this, Kennedy waxed 
eloquent, "War, by its very nature has ebbs and flows, and we constantly review 
the application of airpower to best support the forces on the ground in theater.
We view this as simply part of our contract to the warfighters. As we do not 
discuss operational aspects of missions, I'll decline further comment."

Kennedy went on to say that the U.S. makes "every effort" to "minimize 
collateral damage regardless of whether the enemy is on open ground or within 
the confines of a city." Just days ago, in the Los Angeles Times, Lt. Gen. 
Carrol H. "Howie" Chandler, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for 
Operations, Plans and Requirements, expanded on this line of thought, noting, "I
wouldn't automatically write off air power in an urban environment for fear of 
collateral damageŠ We have the capability with precision targeting and the new 
weapons to operate in an urban environment."

Sarah Sewall, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1993 to 
1996 and is now Director for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard,
agrees that air power has a role to play in urban operations, and may even 
mitigate civilian harm in certain instances. She warns, however, "I have a lot 
of skepticism about the applicability of air power for all types of problems and
particularly for the types of problems that we see commonly, on a day to day 
basis, in Iraq today." As she told Tomdispatch, "The problem comes when you 
think it is the functional equivalent of ground forces."

The Pace Quickens

In 2005, CENTAF reported using 404 bombs and missiles in Iraq. In 2006, an 
apparent lull (whether in lethal attacks or just in their reporting) in the 
first half of the year seems to have given way to a rise in deadly attacks 
during the second half. Only days into 2007, the U.S. military had already 
conducted air strikes in three nations -- Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. And in 
Iraq, the air war may be increasing in pace and ferocity. For example, on 
January 9th, the U.S. unleashed its air power on Baghdad's Haifa Street, a 
"mostly Sunni Arab enclave of residential buildings and shops." According to the
Washington Post, "F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the 
Apache[ helicopter]s fired Hellfire missiles." Elsewhere in Iraq that day, 
according to Air Force reports, F-16s strafed targets near Bayji with cannon 
fire, while others dropped GBU-38s on targets near Turki Village; and F-15Es 
provided "close-air support" to troops near Basrah.

That same evening, back in the U.S., a broadcast of Fox News Channel's "Special 
Report with Brit Hume" offered a brief glimpse of the air war in a story by 
reporter David Macdougall who was, said Hume, "embedded with the Air Force in a 
location we cannot identify, where not only fighter jets, but bombers roared 
into the air headed for other targets in Iraq." Macdougall reported that the 
B-1B Lancer, the long-range bomber that carries the largest payload of weapons 
in the Air Force was, for the first time in over a year, again being employed in
combat in Iraq.

"These B-1 bombers were central to the raid. We're told they flew a ten-hour 
mission, and by the looks of their empty bomb bays, these planes dropped 
thousands of pounds of munitions. They bombed 25 targets deep inside Iraq," he 
said. At one of these sites, he reported, Army troops sent in after the air 
strike reportedly found a "command and control center, insurgent hospital, and a
closet-sized room covered in blood." We may never know if that "room covered in 
blood" was a torture center, part of the hospital, or if it became "covered" in 
the same manner that caused the 280 Iraqi civilian casualties from air strikes 
reported in the media, and the many more that undoubtedly went unreported and 
ignored, last year. This is yet another facet of the air war that will remain a 

The Secret Air War

While reporting on the air war has often been barely evident, except as the odd 
paragraph in daily round-up battle pieces from Iraq (which rely mainly on 
military handouts or press briefings), the gaps in our knowledge about the air 
war have been facilitated by the U.S. military's failure to be honest and 
forthcoming with both data and doctrine. In this respect, the military has been 
the media's enabler.

Given CENTAF's knowledge that, no matter how "smart" their munitions or how 
precise their targeting, noncombatants, especially in urban neighborhoods, are 
sure to die in air strikes, I had a question for Lt. Col. Kennedy: Could he 
explain how CENTAF decided what was an acceptable level of civilian caualties it
was willing to sacrifice for military aims? His answer: "Not in a sufficient 
manner that you would be happy with."

Kennedy's response echoed a running theme in his replies to my questions. At one
point in our exchanges, he actually suggested that an article on the air war in 
Iraq was not "a viable story" and told me not to contact him again until I was 
under contract to produce an article that met his standards. He later claimed 
that his viability comment was due to my "apparent freelance status" and the 
fact I had not provided "a copy of any contract, nor contacts with a publisher."

"When you provide such information I'll be happy to entertain your questions," 
he wrote. After providing proof that I was, indeed, a journalist, he deigned to 
answer me again, concluding, "This is the last email I will respond to from 

Kennedy was just one of a number of U.S. military officials who thwarted 
attempts to uncover the barest outline of the real extent and nature of the 
American air war and its toll on Iraqis. Aside from the Air Force's daily 
release of airpower summaries of dubious worth, the military's efforts have kept
almost all substantive aspects of the air war essentially a secret from 
Americans at home.

During the Vietnam War, the United States conducted a clandestine air war in 
Cambodia, lied about it to the press, and hid it from the American public. In 
Iraq, the military has, these last years, engaged in a different kind of 
secretive air campaign, but their methods of keeping it a mystery appear to have
certain similarities. A few years ago, at a meeting at a Carnegie Endowment for 
International Peace event, Les Roberts, a co-author of The Lancet study and now 
on faculty at Columbia University's Program on Forced Migration and Health, 
recalls a Pentagon spokesman's declaration that, aside from some sites in Najaf 
and al-Anbar province, the military had refrained from any attacks on mosques in
Iraq. Roberts said that the spokesman's rhetoric differed markedly from the 
facts on the ground, recalling that "just weeks before I had seen helicopter 
gunships destroy a beautiful Mosque about an hour south of Baghdad."

When I asked Lt. Col. Kennedy why CENTAF did not track figures on civilian 
casualties of the air war, he laid the blame on higher headquarters, namely the 
Office of the Secretary of Defense: "Go ask OSD as we do not set policy here," 
he wrote.

"I think that it's a red herring," Sewall, the former Pentagon official, told 
Tomdispatch. "They spend a tremendous amount of energy using computer models to 
predict where the glass shards are going to go, and then they don't actually 
care about whether or not that effort to control the direction of the glass 
shards results in killing fewer people, because they've never bothered to find 
out whether it, in fact, succeeded in killing fewer people." As she pointed out 
in a telephone interview, it is "a rather absurd position."

"If they wanted to, they could certainly, as a matter of their own internal 
procedures, do it," Sewall said of tracking civilian casualties. "I think it's 
inexcusable that they don't do a better job."

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of He 
has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, 
the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch.

Copyright 2007 Nick Turse

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