By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
June 19, 2005
An unofficial Capitol Hill hearing Thursday, chaired by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is likely to add spin to the swirling controversy that centers on what's come to be known as the "Downing Street Memo," a once-secret report on a meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair held with aides in July 2002.
At it, they discussed what was characterized as Bush's "determination" to invade Iraq - even though the White House was publicly denying such a decision had been made. The threat of weapons of mass destruction was concocted to justify a war, the memo implied.
To believe the bloggers, who have launched a coast-to-coast e-mail assault, the "mainstream news media" were snoozing at the time, either deaf to the war drums or uninterested in challenging Bush. The bloggers and Conyers also are outraged that little press attention is being paid now to the memo.
But a quick Google search of news stories at the time shows that the United States' steady military buildup and its possible intentions were in fact chronicled in great and continuous detail beginning in the spring of 2002. Perhaps the bloggers' misinformation about the earlier coverage dampened interest in the memo.
Was there a devious White House decision, even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to concoct a rationale for ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who had bedeviled America since the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and who had plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush?
If there was, it was hardly necessary. While it was the first for the George W. Bush administration, the 2002 military buildup was at least the fifth time the United States had massed fighting forces and materiel to confront Iraq since the end of Operation Desert Storm. Each time, the use of force was under full contemplation and, in several cases, used.
In President Bill Clinton's two terms alone, there were three such major mobilizations. Two came in response to Saddam's obstruction of international weapons inspectors. Hoisting a 5-pound bag of sugar to dramatize the amount of anthrax Saddam's regime was believed to have, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen traveled to Capitol Hill and TV news studios warning Saddam to relent - or else possibly face pre-emptive attack.
The last buildup - which in January 1999 brought U.S. forces in the Gulf to seven times their normal level and cost taxpayers more than $1 billion - was the Clinton administration's response to escalating Iraqi military provocations against American warplanes patrolling the "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq.
It didn't work. In the first seven months of 1999 alone, U.S. pilots reported they had faced Iraqi antiaircraft artillery fire from Iraqi ground forces 91 times, had been targeted by enemy radar in preparation for attack another 54 times and had been shot at by surface-to-air missiles 24 times.
Saddam's response to U.S. demands that he cease? The strongman merely upped the reward he was offering to any Iraqi soldier who could bag a U.S. warplane and pilot.
The trajectory to crisis continued into the 2000 election year. No matter who won the presidential contest, it was clear that Saddam and Iraq would likely present the first major foreign-policy conundrum to whomever ascended to the Oval Office.
At the time, Saddam had the edge. He was gaining global sympathy with his complaints that U.N. economic sanctions - imposed after the Gulf War to keep Saddam from rebuilding his military and arming it with weapons of mass destruction - were causing the Iraqi people terrible suffering due to the food and medicine shortages that resulted.
While we know now that Saddam was siphoning off billions of dollars of "oil for food" aid that was intended for Iraqi families, at the time his plaint drew growing support from European nations, who were close to calling on the United Nations to lift sanctions.
U.S. allies in the Middle East, who had backed the no-fly enforcement and America's military buildups as a proper response to Saddam's aggression, were similarly peeling back their support. Saddam had lately taken up the Palestinian cause, funding the families of suicide bombers and otherwise inserting himself in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
His anti-U.S. tirades were well received in the region, and his stature was growing around the globe for his success in yanking America to the brink of war over and over for years.
At the same time, the Pentagon had growing worries about the no-fly patrols, which were designed to stifle any Iraqi military moves against its neighbors and to protect the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, who were victims of the alleged war crimes for which Saddam now stands accused.
After 10 years of daily flights, the patrols, which reached a total of more than 216,000 sorties, were costing some $1 billion a year and wearing out warplanes and pilots. The escalation of Iraqi attacks meant the missions would only cost the military more and be even more dangerous. Many Pentagon brass grumbled that something had to be done.
But what? Periodic pinprick cruise-missile attacks, such as those launched against Iraqi military targets in 1998's Operation Desert Thunder, Round II, had little effect, except on the Pentagon's budget.
Relax economic sanctions? The Clinton administration denounced any such move as a misguided capitulation that would allow Saddam to re-arm, including with chemical and biological toxins.
Abandon the no-fly patrols? That would break America's belated pledge to protect Saddam's victims, thousands of whom died after U.S. forces left them vulnerable after the Gulf War. No more overflights would also give Saddam a free shot if he wanted to repeat his 1990 invasion of Kuwait or any other neighbor.
Clinton left the festering crisis to his successor. But even before Bush was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2001, Saddam demonstrated his own resolve to continue to force the issue.
In early January, Iraq's aggressive targeting of U.S. no-fly patrols increased. By the end of January, more than 60 such incidents had been recorded - far more than in previous months. The newly minted Bush administration said the nation's Iraq policy was under review, and that a new approach clearly was called for.
On Feb. 16, 2001, less than a month after Bush took office, he issued his first military order: permitting U.S. warplanes, in retaliation, to attack Iraqi surveillance radar and communications sites located outside the no-fly zones.
And what did Saddam do? He turned that bombing into fodder for his anti-U.S. campaign, and received a sympathetic response from many U.N. member nations.
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