... and a tale of dogged reporters ...
Larisa Alexandrova and John Byrne of Raw Story found a little-noticed quote in the NYT (fee) on Aug. 25, 2002 by Lt-Gen. Michael Moseley, and went digging:
Starting in late May to June of 2002 a flurry of activity began both in the United States and in the Middle East. In what appears to be an admission of covert activity, chief allied air force commander Lieutenant-General Michael Moseley divulged in a little-noticed quote in the New York Times that US/British aircraft flew 21,736 sorties between June 2002 and March 2003.
Moseley said that some 600 bombs were dropped before the official start of the war, targeting 391 locations and/or installations.
Moseley explained that the combination of air strikes and covert raids occurred in the southern no-fly zone regions covered by routine patrols. ...
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Raw Story notes that "[t]he targets of these strikes are difficult to pinpoint, but [it] has found a clear divergence between U.S. and Iraqi reports at the time, as well as disagreement over what provoked the strikes":
The group saw the strikes as a means by which the U.S. could degrade Iraqi defensive capabilities, and as a precursor to a declared war.
"It was no big secret at the time," GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike told RAW STORY. "It was apparent to us at the time that they were doing it and why they were doing it, and that was part of the reason why we were convinced that a decision to go to war had already been made, because the war had already started."
Pike says the allied forces used their position in the `No-Fly- Zone' to engage in pre-emptive action long before war was formally declared.
"They I think had decided to take advantage of Southern Watch and Northern Watch to go ahead and take the air defense system apart and attack any other targets that they felt needed to be preemptively destroyed," Pike asserted.
"They explicitly altered the rules of engagement," he added, "because initially the rules of engagement had been that they would shoot back if [someone] shot at them. Then they said that if they were shot at, they would shoot at whatever they wanted to."
One U.S. Air Force vet told a [World Tribunal on Iraq War] hearing in Istanbul this weekend, "I saw bombing intensify. All the documents coming out now, the Downing Street memo and others, confirm what I had witnessed in Iraq. The war had already begun while our leaders were telling us that they were going to try all diplomatic options first."
In fact, reports Raw Story, Iraq's Minister for Foreign Affairs Naji Sabri "complained about the air raids to the UN Secretary-General May 27, 2002." Mr. Sabri complained again on May 28, 2002.
However, "[t]he U.S. account differed," reports Raw Story. "The U.S. European Command issued this statement about an attack the following day":
Coalition aircraft responded to the Iraqi attack by delivering precision ordnance on elements of the Iraqi integrated air defense system.
"The public reasons given for at least some of these air strikes," Reports Raw Story, "generally involved purported violations of the no-fly zone region in Southern Iraq or the disabling of air defense installations."
The number of days per month that allied planes attacked installations in Iraq leapt from six to nine between July and August of 2002, then skipped to thirteen from December to February of 2003.
Congress had approved the use of force pending the exhaustion of diplomatic options in October 2002, and UN inspectors returned in November, while an aggressive air campaign was in full swing.
When President Bush formally declared war on Iraq in March 2003, allied airstrikes in Iraq actually declined.
Further recommended reading: "Spikes of Activity" at Why We Are Back.