Has Iraq War Begun? Turkish Troops Seize Key Airfield In Northern Iraq

by DEBKAfile

10 August 2002

America’s offensive against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has begun as an exercise in gradualism rather than a D-Day drama. DEBKAfile ’s military sources report that tens of thousands of US, British, French, Netherlands, Australian troops may take part in the campaign, openly or covertly, but not in massive waves that fling themselves telegenically on Baghdad.

The fact of the matter is that American military concentrations are already unobtrusively present in northern and southern Iraq. The US campaign to oust Saddam is therefore unfolding already, albeit in salami-fashion, slice by slice, under clouds of disinformation and diversionary ruses – like the latest statements by President George W. Bush (No date set yet for the offensive) and British premier Tony Blair (Plenty of time before the war begins), or the grave reservations issuing from the Russian, French and German leaders. The peasoup of deception is further thickened by utterances in the last 48 hours from Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi crown prince Abdullah. They warn Washington that attacking Iraq would be a terrible mistake, one which they want no part of.

DEBKAfile’s military sources attempt here to pierce some of the thickets of confusion with a few facts on the ground:
A. Special US forces entered the Kurdish regions of north Iraq towards the end of March nearly four months ago, to set up local Kurdish militias and train them for battle.

B. At around the same time, Turkish special forces went into northern Iraq in waves that continued through April, fetching up in Turkmen regions around the big oil towns of Mosul and Kirkuk.

C. Meanwhile, the Americans threw a ring of bases – using existing facilities and adding new ones – around Iraq. They have since been pouring into those bases US armored ground units, tanks, air, navy and missile forces, as well as combat medical units and special contingents for anti-nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. According to our sources, the noose around Iraq extends from Georgia and Turkey in the north, Israel, Egypt and Jordan to the west, Eritrea and Kenya in the southwest, and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain to the south.

Furthermore, a large US armada, including aircraft carriers, has assembled at three points: the eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

D. Since June, American and Turkish construction engineers have been working in northern Iraq, building and expanding airfields and air strips to make them fit for military use.

First US Military Steps

In the past week, once those preparations were in place, the United States carried out two military operations:
1. Tuesday August 6, at 0800 hours Middle East time, US and British air bombers went into action and destroyed the Iraqi air command and control center at al-Nukhaib in the desert between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The center contained advanced fiber optic networks recently installed by Chinese companies. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources say the raid made military history. For the first time, the US air force used new precision-guided bombs capable of locating and destroying fiber optic systems. The existence of such weaponry was hitherto unknown.

Following the destruction of the facility, about 260 miles (415 kilometers), southwest of Baghdad, waves of US warplanes swept in from the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia and from US aircraft carriers in the Gulf and flew over the Iraqi capital.
The Iraqi air force and anti-aircraft system held their fire on orders from above. This deep air penetration told the Americans that the early warning radar system protecting Baghdad and its environs from intrusion by enemy aircraft and missiles was inactive.

2. Two days later, on Wednesday night, August 8, Turkey executed its first major military assault inside Iraq. DEBKAfile’s military sources learn from Turkish and Kurdish informants that helicopters under US, British and Turkish warplane escort flew Turkish commandos to an operation for seizing the critical Bamerni airport in northern Iraq. This airport, just outside the Kurdish region, lies 50 miles north of the big Iraqi oil cities of the north, Kirkuk and Mosul. With the Turkish commandos was a group of US special forces officers and men. Bamerni airport was captured after a brief battle in which a unit of Iraqi armored defenders was destroyed, opening the airport for giant American and Turkish transports to deliver engineering units, heavy machinery and electronic support equipment, which were put to work at once on enlarging the field and widening its landing strips.

The American unit, reinforced, went on to capture two small Iraqi military airfields nearby.

The Turkish expeditionary force in northern Iraq now numbers some 5,000 men, in addition to Turkish air force contingents.
DEBKAfile’s military experts explain that with Bamerni airport and the two additional airfields the Americans have acquired full control of the skies over the two oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as over the Syrian-Iraqi railroad, which they can now cut off by aerial bombardment. A prime strategic asset, this railroad is Saddam’s back door for taking delivery of his illegal overseas arms purchases, which are ferried from Syrian ports to Baghdad by the Syrian-Iraqi railway. On the return journey, the same railway carries illegal Iraqi oil exports, over and above the quantities allowed under UN sanctions, out to market. The Iraqi war effort and the Syrian treasury depend heavily on the revenues accruing from these smuggled oil sales.

The battle over this airfield was in fact the first important face-to-face engagement between a US-led invasion force and Iraqi troops. It was carried out seven hours before the Iraqi ruler delivered his televised speech to the nation, on the 14th anniversary of the bloody eight-year Iraq-Iran war. In that speech, Saddam threatened American troops going to war against Iraq that they would return home in coffins.

Next Steps
Just before the Saddam address, US spy satellites and planes detected unusual movements by elite Republic Guard units in the capital. They appeared to be digging positions below ground on the banks of the Tigris. Some military commentators were convinced the Iraqi ruler had decided to bury himself and his key associates in fortified bunker-type positions. He was said to be counting on American reluctance to engage in urban warfare in Iraqi towns for fear of large-scale-casualties that would force them to withdraw.

DEBKAfile’s military experts see little sign of this tactic – aside from the initial report. In fact, the bulk of the Iraqi army is concentrated in three regions outside Baghdad - the Kurdish regions of the north, the H-3 and al Baghdadi air bases opposite the Jordanian border in the center, and along the Saudi and Kuwaiti frontiers, in the south.

In the north, the Iraqi armored divisions, which are massed opposite the Turkish border along the Little and Big Zeb Rivers, show no sign of movement in response to US-Turkish activity.

Iraqi concentrations in the center and south have been augmented somewhat but not substantially.

Iraq’s military passivity in the face of US-led advances and strikes is beginning to worry the American, Turkish and Israeli high commands. They suspect that Saddam is playing the same fog-of-war game as Washington, so as to put them to sleep and then catch them unawares.

Such sudden action could take the form of an Iraqi missile or bomber attack on Israel using warheads loaded with radioactive, chemical or biological materials, a combined missile-terrorist strike to sabotage Saudi oil fields, or a mass terrorist attack in the United States.

The sharpest alert to a threat to Iraq’s southern neighbors came not from military intelligence but from international oil dealers, who warned that Saddam Hussein, if attacked, may well decide to set fire to Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields, sending oil prices skyrocketing above US$ 40 per barrel.

Israel’s Concerns
Israel faces three threats, all of them in the realm of the unknown:

a. An Iraqi missile attack, when the size of Saddam’s arsenal has not been reliably established.

DEBKAfile ’s military experts dispute the assessment heard this week from retired Israeli military leaders that the Iraqis have only a few missiles. The truth is that no one outside Iraq knows how many Saddam has cached or what advanced missile technologies he has secretly developed. According to one estimate, Iraq may have accumulated between 70 and 150 warheads, or maybe more.

b. A WMD threat, when no one knows what Saddam has up his sleeve – whether radiological bombs with a limited radius, or a more highly developed type. The same questions apply to Saddam’s biological and chemical warfare capabilities.

c. Notwithstanding the presence of US forces in Jordan and the strategic-defense relationship developed between Jordan and Israel, the possibility of the old Eastern Arab Front coming back to life against Israel, though unlikely, cannot be entirely ruled out.
The gloomiest scenario envisages Iraqi units surging through Jordan to attack Israeli from the east concurrently with a Syrian-Hizballah strike from the north – a combined assault that may sweep King Abdullah into the fray against Israel.
The Jordanian king is an unknown quantity, untried in war situations. Therefore the odds on his executing an about-face as radical as this cannot be estimated with certainty. Israeli war planners, however, are not ignoring this possible peril, however improbable.