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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The No-Fly Zone War (Iraq)

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the No-Fly Zone War.

When did this conflict occur?

June, 1991^ – 20th March, 2003*

^ – Though the No-Fly Zone War is often considered to have begun with the establishment of the Northern No-Fly Zone in June of 1991, the Ministry of Defence only recognised British servicemembers with the Operational Service Medal with Air Operations Iraq Clasp from the 16th of July. [1]

* – Air strikes under the auspices of Operation Southern Watch continued into June of 2002, even targeting Iraqi military sites that demonstrated no hostile intent towards coalition aircraft. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The cessation of Operation Desert Storm, the multinational military effort aimed at removing Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein from neighbouring Kuwait, saw the establishment of two no-fly zones over Iraq: a Northern No-Fly Zone set at the 36th Parallel formed in June of 1991 and a Southern No-Fly Zone at the 32nd Parallel in August of 1992. [3] Their formation was rooted in the US and UK interpretation of previous UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 678 from November of 1990, which authorised the use of military force by the coalition to implement previous resolutions concerning Iraqi behaviour and restore security in the area, as well as UNSCR 688, which condemned the oppression of Iraqi civilians especially in Kurdish areas; Resolution 688, however, included no explicit reference to no-fly zones, and the legality of US, UK, and French military efforts remains controversial. [4] Two simultaneous efforts, spearheaded by aircraft from the US and UK, developed, with Operation Provide Comfort, later replaced by Operation Northern Watch, seeking to protect Kurdish dissidents in Northern Iraq while Operation Southern Watch assumed responsibility for the South of Iraq. Though focused largely on combat air patrols and aerial interdiction against Iraqi military sites, the no-fly zone effort saw a major offensive shift in December of 1998. Following continued interference with UN inspection efforts in Iraq, the US and UK initiated Operation Desert Fox and carried out a four-day bombing campaign on targets throughout the country. [5] Though Iraqi provocations steadily decreased through the late 1990s and early 2000s, the combined air effort continued and focused increasingly on striking Iraqi air defence arrays, paving the way for the eventual invasion in 2003. By March of 2003, with air supremacy over Iraq assured, the No-Fly Zone effectively came to an end.

What role did British military forces play?

The Royal Air Force served as the second main military contributor to the No-Fly Zone War, alongside the US Air Force and US Navy aircraft. In addition to enforcing the Northern No-Fly Zone over Iraqi Kurdistan as part of Operation Provide Comfort, later Operation Northern Watch, British personnel played an active role in the airspace of Southern Iraq. From 1992 to 2003, RAF Tornados, supported by Nimrod aircraft providing airborne command-and-control as well as Vickers VC10s for air-to-air refuelling, served under the auspices of Operations Jural and Bolton, the British contributions to the American-led Operation Southern Watch. [6] Targeting surface to air missile sites in addition to key command and communications nodules, RAF aircraft succeeded in significantly degrading the Iraqi defensive capability in the country’s South. In addition to contributing to the maintenance of no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq, the RAF also participated in the US-led Operation Desert Fox, an offensive air effort in December of 1998 launched as a result of Iraqi interference with UN Special Commission inspections. RAF aircraft operated in combined formations with US Air Force and Naval Aviators, striking Iraqi radar sites, radio relays, and, on the operation’s third day, a Republican Guard headquarters building in Southern Iraq. [7] Following Operation Desert Fox, RAF aircraft and personnel remained active, with the early 2000s witnessing a noticeable increase in British activity in Iraqi airspace. Alongside US military forces, the UK nearly doubled its aerial interdiction sorties in 2002, and, immediately prior to the passage of UNSCR 1441 which condemned the Iraqi failure to cooperate with weapons inspectors, RAF aircraft were dropping 64% of all ordnance over Southern Iraq. [8] Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 signalled the end of RAF involvement in the No-Fly Zone War, the British military aviation remained and played a vital role in support of forces engaged in offensive efforts in the South. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, a confirmed total of 7  British military personnel died in the conflict, with 0 of these deaths being due to hostile action. [9]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Despite occurring over the span of just four days, the joint US-UK Operation Desert Fox accounted for a disproportionate number of Iraqi civilian deaths during the No-Fly Zone War. Current Iraqi estimates place the total figure of noncombatant fatalities during the 13-year aerial campaign at 1400. [10] Of this, approximately 200 deaths, or 14%, stemmed from Operation Desert Fox. [11]

Despite this, identifying a specific proportion of civilian deaths during Operation Desert Fox due to Royal Air Force personnel remains difficult. In addition to the absence of a precise UN or Iraqi figure of noncombatant fatalities over the four-day operation, RAF and American aircraft operated in tandem with one another: one such formation on the 17th of December, for instance, consisted of four RAF Tornado GR1s, four American F-18s, two American F-14s, an additional two F-18s focused on the suppression of enemy air defences, one US Navy EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft, and one USAF EC-135 specialising in electronic intelligence collection. [12] The highly integrated nature of the US-UK air effort in Operation Desert Fox, and the No-Fly Zone War as a whole, greatly complicates the process of attributing specific civilian fatalities to the RAF. While it is indisputable that noncombatants were killed as a direct result of these US-UK strikes, such as one incident on the 17th of December which resulted in the deaths of 27 Iraqi civilians, a precise figure of deaths due to British military action could not be identified. [13]

Endnotes:

[1] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[2] Chapman, Suzann, “The ‘War’ Before the War,” Air Force Magazine, 2004, https://www.airforcemag.com/PDF/MagazineArchive/Documents/2004/February%202004/0204war.pdf

[3] Silliman, Scott, “The Iraqi Quagmire: Enforcing the No-Fly Zones,” New England Law Review 36, no. 4 (2002): 768.

[4] Resolution 688, UNSCR, 2013, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/688

[5] Byman, Daniel, “After the Storm: U.S. Policy toward Iraq since 1991,” Political Science Quarterly 115, no. 4 (2000): 509-510. https://doi.org/10.2307/2657607.

[6] UK Operations, UK Parliament, 2000, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmdfence/453/45307.htm

[7] Ritchie, Sebastian. The Royal Air Force and UK Air Power over Iraq and Kosovo, 1997-2000 (Middlesex: Air Historical Branch, 2021): 73.

[8] Smith, Michael, “RAF bombing raids tried to goad Saddam into war,” The Times, 2005, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/raf-bombing-raids-tried-to-goad-saddam-into-war-j0dgwq328x6

[9] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence.

[10] Carrington, Anca. Iraq: Issues, Historical Background, Bibliography (Hauppauge: Nova, 2003): 18.

[11] Von Sponeck, Hans C. A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006): 191.

[12] Ritchie, The Royal Air Force and UK Air Power over Iraq and Kosovo, 71.

[13] Mehta, Monica, “Counting Casualties,” Mother Jones, 1999, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1999/01/counting-casualties/