DOHA, Qatar—The air war over Iraq has begun.
Fighter jets now bomb Iraqi targets almost daily and the Air Force has dropped more bombs and missiles in the past three months than in the previous three years.
The U.S. Central Command has announced air strikes on nine of the last 10 days, targeting more than 20 individual locations. At least 16 of those were described as "military communication" sites. The others were a surface-to-air missile system and various radar systems.
U.S. pilots on Tuesday used precision-guided weapons to bomb three unmanned, underground military communication sites southeast of Baghdad. The attack followed two Monday strikes in southern Iraq.
Since November, there have been more than 120 air strikes, compared with 110 in the previous 34 months, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington nonprofit group focused on defense issues.
"While, officially, no decision has been made on a recourse to military action, the air campaign part of the war really started months ago in all but name," said Francois Boo of GlobalSecurity.org.
The United States has about 500 planes based in 30 locations throughout the Persian Gulf flying missions over Iraq, an Air Force official in the region said Tuesday. Beginning in January, U.S. pilots have bombed seven to 14 targets a week.
Military officials said the air strikes are officially aimed at preventing the Iraqis from threatening American and British pilots monitoring the no-fly zones, which the U.S. established after the 1991 Gulf War. They note that two out of every three missions draw fire from Iraqi forces.
"There's a lot of shooting going on," said Air Force Capt. Dan King, a pilot who patrols the southern no-fly zone. "It's a daily occurrence."
King was interviewed at an airbase somewhere in the Middle East, the location of which could not be disclosed as a condition of the interview. King flies an F-15E with the 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
The scope of the strikes has grown since September when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told commanders to expand the list of targets from radar and missile systems to also include communications centers and fiber optic cables.
More recent strikes have targeted surface-to-surface missiles moved closer to Kuwait, where the majority of U.S. troops are waiting for a potential invasion.
"We've definitely upped the ante," said Mark Burgess, a research analyst with Washington's Center for Defense Information. "There's a definite change in intent. You could argue a war has started."
The stepped-up air campaign not only softens the battlefield, analysts say, it also trains pilots who may soon be officially fighting a war over the same airspace, makes it harder for Iraqis to realize when a war actually starts and helps persuade Iraqis that they should surrender.
In addition to the bombs, pilots have dropped more than 11 million leaflets since December, including 900,000 scattered Monday about 250 miles southeast of Baghdad. The leaflets are key to a psychological operations campaign aimed at persuading Iraqis to surrender. Officials with U.S. Central Command predict tens of thousands of Saddam Hussein's troops will heed those warnings within days of any invasion.
Most of the bombings and leaflet drops have occurred in southern Iraq. But this month, for the first time in 12 years, the military also dropped leaflets in northern Iraq.
Three attacks this week targeted areas 230 miles west of Baghdad near the Jordan border, a desert stretch American commanders fear could be used to launch missiles at Israel, as the Iraqi military did in the 1991 Gulf War.
But pilots aim most strikes at radar and missile systems that threaten coalition pilots, said Air Force Maj. John Anderson, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command's air units.
"They roll the stuff in, we find it and we strike it in response to the threat," Anderson said. "It's almost always associated with trying to shoot down the pilots, so we take them out."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.