Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

Large-Scale US-UK Airstrikes Cause Diplomatic Concern, Dismay


On February 16, eighteen US and six British aircraft attacked five Iraqi command-and-control targets close to Baghdad. The attacks, which reportedly caused civilian casualties, including two deaths, were justified by US Marine Corps Lt. General Greg Newbold as an act of "self defence" against the increasing threat posed by Iraqi anti-aircraft facilities targeting American and UK planes patrolling the southern 'no-fly zone'. Although aircraft from the two countries have routinely attacked targets in the southern and northern no-fly zones, frequently causing civilian death and injury, the February 16 incident was reportedly the biggest single offensive air operation since the four-day bombardment of targets in and around Baghdad and elsewhere in December 1998. The incident was also unusual in involving targets to the north of the 33rd parallel, marking the northern boundary of the southern zone. Notwithstanding these features, Newbold observed that "strikes like this have occurred since the beginning of Operation Southern Watch and then Northern Watch, since 1991... They are part and parcel of protecting our aircraft..."

The military action had an immediate and severe diplomatic impact, aggravating already deep wounds among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, three of whom - China, France and Russia - have long portrayed the no-fly zones as illegitimate and mandated by no Council resolutions. More generally, the US and UK found themselves in stark political isolation, with only four countries - Canada, Poland, Kuwait (whose territory was used to help launch the attack) and Israel - voicing clear approval in the first few days after the strike. The general reaction, including among close allies of Washington and London, was one of surprise, in part because of remarks on the Iraq issue by US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN on February 14 which were widely received as being generally conciliatory and constructive, and in part because the attacks came just ten days before a long-awaited meeting in New York between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and senior Iraqi officials, led by Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, to discuss ways of easing or lifting sanctions and securing Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions. Referring to the proximity of the action to the discussions, Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked (February 20): "Obviously the timing is a bit awkward...but the Iraqis have confirmed that they are coming, so we will be able to pursue our attempts to break the impasse and pull them in to cooperate with the UN..." Annan added: "It may take some time... I don't think...we will have a miraculous breakthrough, but at least it's a beginning."

Statements and Comment on the Attacks


Statement by the Revolution Command Council, February 16: "Iraq will not be bent by an aggression or threat. It will also not be tempted by the crumbs which will bring disgrace on it and harm its honour... The more they step up their aggression, the harder Iraq...will side with right against evil. We will fight them by land, air, and sea. Their aggressiveness will only make them sustain more losses."


President Bush, February 16: "The no-fly zones are enforced on a daily basis. ... We will continue to enforce the no-fly zone until the world is told otherwise... Saddam Hussein has got to understand we expect him to conform to the agreement that he signed after [Operation] Desert Storm [in 1991]... "

President Bush, February 22: "The mission was twofold - one was to send him a clear message that this administration will remain engaged in that part of the world. I think we accomplished that mission. We got his attention. And secondly, the mission was to degrade his capacity to harm our pilots who might be flying in the no-fly zone. And we accomplished that mission, as well...:

Senator Carl Levin (Democrat), February 16: "Today's action implementing this policy was an appropriate response to the increased threat from the Iraqi air defence system reported by our pilots."

Former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) arms inspector Scott Ritter, February 19: "[This action is] premature, totally ineffective, and will only continue to further strengthen Saddam Hussein's hand..."

Prime Minister Tony Blair, February 16: "Saddam Hussein remains a threat to stability in the Middle East. I am determined to prevent his tyrannical regime from once again attacking Iraq's neighbours, and to ensure that the humanitarian crises we witnessed after the Gulf War should not be repeated."

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, February 17: "We cannot ask British pilots to patrol the no-fly zones and not act when we see Saddam Hussein preparing to shoot them down. There is one very simple way in which the bombing can stop - it does not need to happen again - [and] that is for Saddam Hussein to stop targeting our pilots."

Robin Cook, February 19: "Some of those who ask why we do it would be the very people who would be asking why are we not doing more if we were to abandon it and Saddam was to go back to bombing his own people from the air..."

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, February 17: "We are quite confident that in international law our pilots have the right to defend themselves when they come under attack..."


Arab League Statement, Cairo, February 17: "This raid which has killed a number of innocent civilians has no justification, violates international law, and has provoked anger and resentment in the Arab world."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, February 17: "If the Iraqis are breaking the agreement on the zone of no-flying and they don't respect that, the Americans and the British have the duty to make sure that it is respected."

Chinese Foreign Ministry Statement, February 19: "We condemn the act of air strikes by the US and Britain against Iraq and express our deep regret towards the casualties of civilians caused... China has consistently maintained that the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Iraq should be respected. The air strike is not conducive to the efforts made by the international community to resolve the question of Iraq. We urge the US and Britain to stop at once their military acts in Iraq so as to create an appropriate atmosphere for the dialogue to be held soon between Iraq and the UN Secretary-General."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, February 18: "[This is a] serious, negative step which we cannot accept, nor understand its reasons, which run counter to Iraq's safety and sovereignty..."

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, television interview, February 19: "In fact, the Anglo-American shelling has never stopped and we distanced ourselves from it a long time ago. ... [F]or a long time we have considered that there was no legal basis for this type of shelling... I would point out that, to my knowledge, in this particular case this action has been approved by virtually no one, only Canada and Poland have done so. All the others have expressed either their disapproval or criticism or, like us, concern and unease, since we can't see the point of this action."

Communiqué issued by the French Foreign Ministry, February 17: "France draws attention to the suspension of her participation in Operation Southern Watch in December 1998, when this changed from being a surveillance operation, as had initially been the case. Since then, we have on several occasions expressed our incomprehension and unease vis-à-vis the repeated air strikes carried out by the American and British Air Forces. In addition to the civilians victims they cause, these operations are today fuelling a tension detrimental to the implementation of a concerted solution to the Iraqi problem, in accordance with the Security Council's objectives."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Washington, February 20: "[W]e are very much concerned, as is the American side, about the immense security risk posed by the Iraqi government... We do agree that it is necessary to get Iraq to comply with the United Nations resolutions, all of them, and we listened with great interest to what Secretary of State Powell said in this respect in the briefing on this situation. We understand the action our allies had to take in an immensely difficult situation where they have to make sure that they safeguard the lives of the Kurds as well as of their own troops in those regions."

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, February 20: "India has consistently opposed [the] unilateral imposition of No-Fly Zones upon Iraq. In our view, they do not come within the framework of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Aerial bombardment of targets in Iraq, to impose such zones, is unacceptable. Such strikes cause unnecessary and avoidable suffering to the innocent men, women and children of Iraq. India is in favour of the lifting of sanctions on Iraq, in tandem with Iraq's adherence to UN Security Council resolutions. That is the only way for Iraq to be brought back into the mainstream of regional and international affairs."

Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb, February 18: "[Jordan] categorically rejects any form of aggression against brother Iraq and the unjustified use of force...which goes beyond UN resolutions and international consensus. Arrogance and use of force against people increases frustration in the region..."

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah, February 18: "The new development was the return of Iraq to making threats, casting doubts on Kuwait's legitimate existence, and creating a state of tension in Arab-Arab relations..."

Pakistan Foreign Ministry Statement, February 17: "[Such actions are the] worst kind of state terrorism."

Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the Political Department of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), February 18: "These attacks will escalate tension in the Arab region and threaten peace and security in the whole area... [They are a] flagrant violation of all international laws..."

Jerzy Marek Nawakowski, senior adviser to Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, February 17: "There is no reason not to take in this action with understanding... The US is now opting for greater firmness." (Note: Mr. Nowakowski resigned on February 21 following the strong condemnation of Polish policy by French Foreign Minister Vedrine - see above - apparently based solely on the remarks quoted here. According to Nowakowski: "I asked the Prime Minster to accept my resignation because I would not like to be a cause for international tensions.")

Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, February 17: "On the evening of February 16, combat aircraft of the air forces of the United States and Great Britain dealt a series of missile-bomb strikes at Iraq, including Baghdad. There are casualties among the peaceful population. This unprovoked act attests that Washington and London continue [to rely on] force actions against Iraq. Such a line is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and other norms of international law and aggravates the already explosive situation in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf area. It is noteworthy that these actions have been taken on the eve of the resumption of a dialogue in the United Nations aimed at unblocking the situation... Russia firmly believes that the situation around Iraq can only be resolved by political means, through ensuring the strict implementation of all relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council."

Statement by President Vladimir Putin, following a telephone conversation with French president Jacques Chirac, February 19: "During an exchange of views on the Iraq situation, the closeness of Russia's and France's positions was confirmed in assessing the recent air strikes...as counter-productive for the process of a political settlement..."

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Defence Ministry's International Affairs Department, February 16: "What the American militarists are doing at the start of the new administration's activity is a challenge to international security and the entire world community... [The new administration] is unfortunately showing that it relies on military force in disregard of international and humanitarian standards and principles..."

Joint Communiqué by Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia (Prince Saud al-Faisal) and Syria (Farouq al-Shara), February 21: "Both sides expressed feelings of denunciation and anxiety over the recent escalation against south Baghdad... [The escalation] came at a time when wide consultations were being conducted to tackle the whole issue [of Iraq] at the next Arab summit in Amman in a way that preserves security in the region and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq..."

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, February 17: "It is sad that a need was felt to resort to such an action against Iraq and that civilians as well as military targets were harmed... There are special ties between Turkey and the United States over the Iraq issue. The US administration should have informed us beforehand..."

Developments Prior to the Attacks

On February 14, speaking at UN Headquarters in New York alongside Secretary-General Annan, US Secretary of State Powell expounded the new administration's stance on Iraq policy in remarks generally interpreted as non-confrontational and perhaps surprisingly constructive. Asked for his opinion on the forthcoming talks between Annan and the Iraqi leadership, Powell commented: "I think talks can be useful, and it would be presumptuous of me to suggest to the Secretary-General what he might or might not talk about. ... We believe it is necessary...for Saddam Hussein and his associates to come forward and then to allow inspectors in so that they can verify that these weapons [of mass destruction] are no longer there... So I hope the Iraqi representative comes with new information that will show their willingness and desire to comply with the UN resolutions and become a progressive member of the world community again." Later in the press conference, Powell noted:

"[W]e are constantly looking at ways to make it possible for us to be assured that there are no weapons of mass destruction and there are no programmes underway that would produce weapons of mass destruction; at the same time, [we want to] do it in a way that does not hurt the Iraqi people. We have sympathy for the people of Iraq. We have sympathy for the children of Iraq. We see a regime that has more than enough money to deal with the problems that exist in that society, if only they would use that money properly. ... And so that is our goal, to make sure that Iraq complies with the arms control agreements it entered into, and let's move on beyond this."

Powell has expressed his intention of 're-energising' the faltering sanctions regime against Iraq (see last issue). On January 23, this approach was criticised by Richard Perle, one of President Bush's campaign advisers on foreign policy issues, who stated: "Re-energising sanctions is a mistake. Ten years later, they're an obvious failure." Norway currently holds the chair of a UN Security Council committee monitoring the implementation of the sanctions. On January 26, Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland announced that the Norwegian Embassy in Baghdad would be reopened to enable the country "to carry out the most independent possible assessment of conditions in Iraq linked to our work in the Security Council."

January 17 marked the tenth anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Much of the focus of comment on the occasion was on the vast humanitarian suffering in Iraq, caused in part by the impact of sanctions. Speaking on the eve of the anniversary, however, British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain was unrepentant about the need to maintain pressure on the Saddam Hussein regime: "The difference between us and the critics is that they just want us to walk away, abandon sanctions, abandon our military efforts, allow him to invade Iran, allow him to invades Kuwait, as he repeated yesterday he would do, allow him to lob missiles into Israel, allow him to use chemical weapons on the Kurds in the north. There's a kind of amnesia about Saddam's brutality in the region..." On January 18, China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement noting: "For the past ten years, great changes have taken place in the Gulf region and the world at large. But, regrettably, questions left over from the Gulf War, including the removal of sanctions on Iraq, have [been] far from removed. ... We sincerely hope that, with the joint efforts of the international community, the region can realise peace and security at an early date."

On January 16, Kuwait's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Suleiman al-Shaheen, argued that the current 'oil-for-food' programme designed to alleviate the humanitarian suffering caused by sanctions, needed to be conceptualised more broadly. The Minister told Reuters: "I have some reservations on the so-called 'oil-for-food'. I would like it to read 'oil-for-food, democracy and freedom'... Why do we treat the Iraqi people as vegetables? We are not treating them like human beings. Humans need not only food. They are not cattle, they are a nation, we would like to hear the voice of the Iraqi people..."

On January 17, Benin Savan, the head of the UN humanitarian relief programme in Iraq, expressed in a letter to the Security Council his "grave concern over the very slow rate of submissions of applications" by Iraq for humanitarian supplies available under the oil-for-food scheme. Savan added: "Despite all the concerns expressed regarding the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people, the total value of applications received under the health sector was only $83.61 million against the $624.75 million allocated."

The International Atomic Energy Agency conducted four days of inspections of fissile materials stored at Iraq's Tuwaitha nuclear plant from January 19-23. On February 14, IAEA director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted, in a letter to the UN Security Council: "Iraq provided the necessary cooperation for the inspection team to perform its activities effectively and efficiently... [The inspectors] were able to verify the presence of the nuclear material subject to safeguards, which consists of low-enriched, natural, and depleted uranium..."

On January 21, the New York Times reported that Iraq had rebuilt a number of facilities, damaged during the December 1998 US-UK air strikes, and previously monitored by UN weapons inspectors on suspicion of having formed part of the country's pre-Gulf War chemical and biological weapons complex. On January 23, Defense Department spokesperson Rear Admiral Craig Quigley conceded that, without inspections, it was impossible to verify the nature of current or planned activity at the sites: "It's...lack of knowledge... There are plausible explanations that the Iraqi authorities have given for the use of these facilities. We just have no particular confidence in their truthfulness." Referring to the New York Times article, Husam Muhammed Ameen, Director-General of Iraq's National Monitoring Department, stated (January 24): "Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have any capability to manufacture them... It has become clear that installations which they are trying to portray as factories of weapons of mass destruction are in fact civilian installations that produce chloride for water treatment and agricultural pesticides..."

Reports: Kuwait wants oil-for-democracy plan for Iraq, Reuters, January 16; Call to end Iraq sanctions, BBC News Online, January 16; Saddam marks Gulf War with victory pledge, Reuters, January 17; Spokesperson on the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War, Chinese Foreign Ministry, January 18; Iraq lagging in buying food, medicine for needy, UN complains, US State Department (Washington File), January 19; Iraq rebuilt weapons factories, officials say, New York Times, January 22; Bush Administration warns Iraq on weapons programs, New York Times, January 23; Pentagon lacks Iraq arms evidence, Associated Press, January 23; Iraq dismisses US report over arms as groundless, Reuters, January 24; Norway to reopen Baghdad Embassy to assess sanctions, Reuters, January 26; Nuclear watchdog - Iraq cooperated with inspection, Reuters, February 14; Transcript - Powell notes resolutions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, US State Department (Washington File), February 16; Powell hopes Iraq allows inspections, Associated Press, February 15; Transcript - DoD press conference on Iraq air strikes, US State Department (Washington File), February 16; Allied aircraft strike five Iraqi command, control targets, US State Department (Washington File), February 16; Russia condemns Baghdad bombing, BBC News Online, February 16; Iraq threatens retaliation for Western attacks, Reuters, February 17; Cook defends Baghdad bombings, BBC News Online, February 17; Little support for Iraq attack, BBC News Online, February 17; Baghdad bombing - Iraqi reaction, BBC News Online, February 17; Iraq defiant over missile attack, BBC News Online, February 17; Protests over allied bombing near Baghdad, CBC News Online, February 17; US and British jets strike air-defense centers in Iraq, New York Times, February 17; US, Britain bomb 5 Iraqi sites, Washington Post, February 17; Concerning the missile-bomb strikes by combat aircraft of the air forces of the United States and Great Britain against Iraq, Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 262-17-02-2001, February 17; Air strikes in Iraq, French Foreign Ministry Communiqué, February 17; Nations criticize attacks on Iraq, Associated Press, February 17; Sympathy, scepticism on bombing, Washington Post, February 18; Arab nations warn air strikes could fan tensions in Mideast, Chicago Tribune, February 18; Arabs denounce Iraq bombing in 'negative step' for new US administration, Agence France Presse, February 18; Blair defiant over Iraqi air strikes, BBC News Online, February 19; Israel set fir missile tests, BBC News Online, February 19; US, Israel test Patriots as Iraq vows revenge, Reuters, February 19; Chinese Foreign Ministry Statement, February 19; Interview given by M. Hubert Vedrine, Foreign Affairs Minister, to 'LCI' [television], February 19, French Foreign Ministry transcript; Iraq seeks anti-US Arab protests - NATO split, Reuters, February 19; UN-Iraq talks may be 'awkward', Associated Press, February 20; Joint press availability with German Minister of Foreign affairs Joschka Fischer and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, US Stare Department, Office of the Spokesman, February 20; Statement by the Prime Minister on the air strikes carried [out] by the US & UK on Iraq, Indian Foreign Ministry text, February 20; Saudi Arabia joins denunciation of Iraq strike, Reuters, February 21; Polish adviser out over Iraq remark, Associated Press, February 21; Transcript excerpts - Bush on Iraq, Powell's Mideast trip, US State Department (Washington File), February 22.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.