Operation Northern Watch flights suspended, pending Turkish OK
March 21, 2003
Operation Northern Watch — the Pentagon’s air patrol over northern Iraq since 1996 — has been suspended after Turkish leaders refused to allow the U.S. military to launch flights into the war zone from Turkish soil.
“We are still scheduling and planning missions to enforce the northern no-fly zone. However, we’re not flying anything until we get Turkish General Staff approval to do so,” said Maj. Bob Thompson, an ONW spokesman at the mission headquarters at Incirkik Air Base in southern Turkey.
Some 50 Air Force and Navy warplanes are based at Incirlik as part of ONW.
Thompson said flights into northern Iraq had ceased as of Monday, after President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to step down from power or face an invasion.
Turkey’s parliament agreed Thursday to allow the U.S. military to use Turkish airspace for a war in Iraq, the Anatolia news agency reported. But it allows only American aircraft based in Europe or the United States to cross Turkey to strike Iraq.
Turkey and the United States were working out the details of using the airspace, officials said.
The proposal would not allow U.S. planes to use Turkish air bases or to refuel in Turkey — which means the U.S. cannot use Incirlik to patrol the no-fly zone.
That leaves on the sidelines some of the Air Force and Navy’s most veteran pilots with recent experience over Iraq. It also raises the question of how much longer ONW will continue to exist.
“Basically, all of Iraq is a no-fly zone now,” said one senior staff officer for U.S. European Command, which oversees the operation. “But, at least for the time being, United Nations sanctions are still in place and the regime that caused them to be there is still in place.”
Just how long that will remain true depends on how successful U.S. field commanders are at quickly bringing down Saddam.
Incirlik was a key air base during the 1991 war with Iraq, forcing Saddam to split his air defenses across his northern and southern borders.
After the war ended, Saddam cracked down on Kurdish minorities in northern Iraq, spurring a massive humanitarian aid campaign under U.S. air cover from Incirlik and the first post-war U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
That mission, called Operation Provide Comfort, eventually evolved into Operation Northern Watch, which formally began in 1996.
Since then, ONW aircraft have been grounded several times, when Turkish authorities refused to allow U.S. aircrews to participate in Operation Desert Strike in 1996 and again in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox.
Contributing to this story: The Associated Press