How Obama keeps the peace: US air strikes flattening cities in Iraq and Syria

Air strikes on Isis in Iraq and Syria are reducing their cities to ruins

By Patrick Cockburn in Irbil

“They make a desert and they call it peace,” is the bitter line Tacitus attributed to the British tribal leader Calgacus speaking 2,000 years ago of the devastation inflicted by the Roman army on the rebellious British. The denunciation has echoed down the centuries and been applied to many pacification campaigns, but it is peculiarly appropriate to what is now happening in Iraq.

Some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, special forces, federal police and Shia paramilitaries are advancing on Fallujah, a Sunni Arab city held by Isis since early 2014. They are backed by the destructive might of the US-led coalition of air forces that have carried out 8,503 air strikes in Iraq and 3,450 in Syria over the last two years. Without such close air support, the anti-Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would not have had their recent successes.

“I think they [government forces] will take Fallujah but the city will be destroyed in the process,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk to the north east of Fallujah in an interview with The Independent. “If they don’t have air strikes they probably won’t be able to take the city.”

“They make a desert and they call it peace,” is the bitter line Tacitus attributed to the British tribal leader Calgacus speaking 2,000 years ago of the devastation inflicted by the Roman army on the rebellious British. The denunciation has echoed down the centuries and been applied to many pacification campaigns, but it is peculiarly appropriate to what is now happening in Iraq.

Some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, special forces, federal police and Shia paramilitaries are advancing on Fallujah, a Sunni Arab city held by Isis since early 2014. They are backed by the destructive might of the US-led coalition of air forces that have carried out 8,503 air strikes in Iraq and 3,450 in Syria over the last two years. Without such close air support, the anti-Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would not have had their recent successes.

“I think they [government forces] will take Fallujah but the city will be destroyed in the process,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk to the north east of Fallujah in an interview with The Independent. “If they don’t have air strikes they probably won’t be able to take the city.”

The precedents are ominous. The Iraqi army backed by Coalition airpower recaptured the city of Ramadi from Isis last December, but more than 70 per cent of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced.

“The destruction the team has found in Ramadi is worse than any other part of Iraq. It is staggering,”  said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

Soon after government forces had taken the city five months ago, Ibrahim al-Osej, a member of the Ramadi district council, said that “all water, electricity, sewage and other infrastructure – such as bridges, government facilities, hospitals and schools – have suffered some degree of damage.”  This included no less than 64 bridges destroyed.

Some of the destruction was caused by Isis mining buildings, but most was the result of 600 Coalition air strikes and Iraqi army artillery fire. US air commanders congratulate themselves on the pinpoint accuracy of their bombardment (so unlike Vietnam or earlier wars) but, if this is so, why was it necessary to destroy Ramadi?

The same is true of other victories over Isis in Iraq and Syria. Last year I was in the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani that Isis tried to capture in a siege lasting four-and-a-half months until they were driven out by Syrian Kurdish fighters and 700 US airstrikes that pulverised three-quarters of the buildings. Everywhere I looked there was a jumble of smashed concrete and broken metal reinforcement bars sticking out of the heaps of rubble. Only in the enclave the Syrian Kurds had clung onto were buildings still standing.

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