WASHINGTON—U.S. warplanes have carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq in the past two years, bombing and strafing insurgent fighters and targets almost daily. And the air war, which has gone largely unnoticed at home, could intensify once American ground forces start to withdraw.
Since Iraq doesn't have a working air force, U.S. jets are expected to provide air cover for Iraqi troops for at least several more years.
Some analysts have raised questions about how effective air power can be in a counterinsurgency war. A key fear is that Iraq's mostly Shiite Muslim and Kurdish army will use American and allied bombing missions for revenge attacks on the Sunni Muslim Arab minority, which provides most of the insurgency's fighters.
"If we allow that to happen, then in essence we'll be doing the same thing we accused Saddam Hussein of doing," said Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA and State Department official. "We'll just be substituting one tyranny for another."
Air Force officials say that only U.S. military teams embedded with Iraqi forces will be allowed to direct airstrikes.
"We intend that Iraqi ground forces will not have the authority to call in close-air support in support of offensive operations," said Col. Audrey Bahler, the public affairs director at U.S. Central Command Air Force's forward base in Qatar. "Only qualified (American air controllers) will have the ability to do this."
According to Central Command, U.S. and British jets carried out 306 close-air support strikes in 2005, 43 percent more than in 2004, when allied planes struck 214 targets.
American military officials say they try to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible. Nevertheless, civilians die. On Jan. 2, a U.S. plane bombed a house in northern Iraq where insurgents were thought to be hiding, killing at least eight people, including two children, according to news reports.
The military said U.S. aircraft had spotted three men suspected of planting a homemade bomb running into the house.
Analysts long have debated the effectiveness of air power in a counterinsurgency war. While there's little doubt that airstrikes in a conventional war can have a devastating effect on enemy troops, command centers and communications networks, the effectiveness of bombing in a guerrilla war is much more difficult to quantify.
In an essay published last March in Air & Space Power Journal, retired Air Force Col. Robyn Read argued that air power in a counterinsurgency war can be used to do more than destroy targets. By the careful use of air power, commanders can support the local population, deter aggression and "assist in establishing the conditions for a safe and secure future."
Central Command says its air missions are meant to "support coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities."
Thomas Keaney of Johns Hopkins University said bombing results were always difficult to determine.
"It's difficult to assess the effects of an airstrike in this kind of war as opposed to a strategic bombing campaign against a conventional army," said Keaney, a former Air Force officer and the author of several books on American air power. "Even with strategic bombing, it was often difficult to measure effects. Not because you're looking at just damage to infrastructure, but also because you're looking for changes in behavior."
The goal in Iraq, Keaney said, is "on one hand to try and kill insurgents, but probably on a larger operational and strategic level it's to convince the insurgents that (continuing to fight) isn't going to work." But it's tough to determine what sort of effect U.S. bombing has had on the insurgents, he added.
Bombing alone can't defeat Iraq's insurgency, said Johnson, the former CIA and State Department official.
"There's nothing in history you can point to where air power has been the deciding factor in a counterinsurgency campaign," Johnson said. "The essence of counterinsurgency is who controls the ground ... and we don't have enough people on the ground."
It's already difficult for American troops to distinguish friend from foe in Iraq. To wage a counterinsurgency campaign solely from the air would be virtually impossible.
According to Bahler, the public affairs officer, roughly 45 U.S. and allied warplanes operate daily over Iraq, not counting the helicopters flown by the Army, Marines or special operations forces.
No U.S. planes have been shot down, but insurgents have shot down a number of American helicopters.
Sixteen U.S. soldiers were killed when a CH-47 Chinook crashed west of Fallujah in November 2003 after being hit by a surface-to-air missile. An insurgent missile took down a Royal Air Force C-130 north of Baghdad last January, killing 10 British soldiers.
Most airstrikes in Iraq have taken place when American and Iraqi troops were fighting insurgents. Air attacks also have been used to destroy suspected guerrilla safe houses, bunkers, vehicles, weapons caches and roadside bombs.
Most have taken place in north-central and western Iraq, where U.S. and Iraqi troops have been engaged in daily combat with guerrilla fighters. Airstrikes also were used against a month-long Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq in 2004.
"Most missions respond or are prepared to respond to `troops in contact' situations where the precision firepower of a combat aircraft may be required," Bahler said. "Often, these missions don't require actual weapons deliveries, but rather a mere `show of force' a combat aircraft produces."
Most strikes are carried out by Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter jets flying from bases in nearby countries and by Navy F-14 and F/A-18 fighters operating from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Most involve precision-guided bombs or strafing runs with 40 mm cannon fire. Unmanned Predator drones, first used in Afghanistan, fire missiles at insurgents.
British Royal Air Force Tornado GR-4 and GR-7 attack jets also provide air cover to coalition ground troops.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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