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Air War Strategy Preserved Iraqi Infrastructure, Lives

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2006 – Aerial strategy practiced by coalition pilots during Operation Iraqi Freedom hinged on knocking out pertinent enemy targets while preserving vital Iraqi infrastructure as well as citizens' lives, an F-16 pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq early in the war recounted here today.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies through the sky during a combat mission over Iraq on July 23, 2004. Before then, South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 pilot Maj. Michael Norton flew his fighter in the aerial vanguard that launched Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003. Photo by Staff Sgt. Lee O. Tucker, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

"A lot of care was put into selecting only those valid military targets that were absolutely essential to assist in taking Baghdad and securing the country," said Maj. Michael Norton, a South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 pilot who'd been part of the U.S. and coalition aerial vanguard that launched OIF on March 19, 2003.

Military planners knew that anything destroyed from the air, like Iraqi roads, bridges, and power-generating stations, would have to be rebuilt during the post-war period, said Norton, a 15-year military veteran who'd flown F-16s for 10 years in the active Air Force before he joined the Air Guard.

"But more important than that," the 36-year-old Norton said, was "the attention that was placed on minimizing civilian casualties, because in any war you do not target civilians."

Under the law of war, Norton explained, civilians near legitimate military targets might regretfully become casualties during an attack. Yet, U.S. and coalition officials "took a much more restrictive interpretation" of the law of war during the planning of military air strikes in Iraq, Norton said.

As a result, the number of Iraqi civilian casualties caused by U.S. and coalition aerial attacks "was very low" during OIF, Norton, a Tallahassee, Fla., native, said.

It's been three years since Saddam Hussein's regime ended with the liberation of Baghdad by U.S. and coalition military forces on April 9, 2003, now named Iraqi Freedom Day. Since then, Iraq's citizens have elected a democratic government and are working with U.S. and coalition allies in suppressing a lingering insurgency fueled by resentful leftover Saddamists and al Qaeda terrorists.

Since the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004, Iraqis have elected an interim government, drafted and ratified a constitution, and elected a four-year constitutionally based government. Insurgent-caused violence in Iraq today is mostly concentrated in just three out of the country's 18 provinces.

Today, more than 250,000 trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers and police are taking the lead in the fight against al Qaeda, the Saddamists, and other terrorists. Those forces were in front and helped to keep order during the sectarian violence caused by the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Saddam preferred to spend public money on lavish palaces for himself and his supporters while he let the country's infrastructure languish. But after the dictator was deposed, myriad infrastructure improvements have been made through the use of U.S., coalition and Iraqi efforts and resources, according to DoD documents.

For example:

  • More than 47,000 Iraqi school teachers and administrators have been trained;
  • Three major Baghdad sewage plants that serve 80 percent of the city's residents have been renovated; and
  • Thirteen refurbished power plants now provide about 60 percent of power generation in Iraq.

Norton, who flew his last air combat mission over Iraq in May 2003, believes that U.S.-coalition aerial strategy carried out during March and April 2003 helped to spare Iraqi citizens' lives and reduced damage to the country's infrastructure, thereby greatly assisting Iraq's post-Saddam recovery.

"I think that was really useful in avoiding having a lot of resentful and angered citizens of Iraq who may have had a loved one who was lost in the war and later on would be more susceptible to joining the insurgency," Norton said.

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