1992: “No Fly” Zone in Iraq Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On August 27, 1992, the United States, Great Britain, and France made a joint decision to establish a “no fly” zone in southern Iraq. The decision not to allow Iraqi aircraft south of the 32d parallel was controversial. There were those who doubted the humanitarian motives of the allies. The Iraqis saw the change as a plot designed to break up their country. Iranian leaders wondered about U.S. president George Bush’s motives–did he support the “no fly” zone simply to give himself a boost in public opinion polls and improve his chances for reelection? Such doubts were echoed in newspaper editorials within the United States. Egypt, Syria, and several Persian Gulf states worried that Iraq would eventually splinter and leave Iran in control of the area. The Arabs wanted to keep the eastern flank of their world intact, but not necessarily under the control of Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite government.

On August 27, 1992, the United States, Great Britain, and France made a joint decision to establish a “no fly” zone in southern Iraq. The decision not to allow Iraqi aircraft south of the 32d parallel was controversial. There were those who doubted the humanitarian motives of the allies. The Iraqis saw the change as a plot designed to break up their country. Iranian leaders wondered about U.S. president George Bush’s motives–did he support the “no fly” zone simply to give himself a boost in public opinion polls and improve his chances for reelection? Such doubts were echoed in newspaper editorials within the United States. Egypt, Syria, and several Persian Gulf states worried that Iraq would eventually splinter and leave Iran in control of the area. The Arabs wanted to keep the eastern flank of their world intact, but not necessarily under the control of Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite government.

The allied leaders dismissed such concerns about the “no fly” zone. Their stated motives were simple–they were merely responding to the defiance of Saddam Hussein, the political leader of Iraq. Hussein, the allies argued, had repeatedly defied requests of the international community and violated the cease-fire agreements still in effect from the Gulf War of 1991. Hussein, for example, deployed antiaircraft missiles in northern Iraq, refused to accept his postwar border with Kuwait, blocked humanitarian aid convoys throughout the countryside, and interfered with United Nations (U.N.) weapons inspectors trying to investigate suspected nuclear, biological, and chemical facilities.

A female U.S. Navy aviation electronics technician performs maintenance work on a fighter plane on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf in early 1999. The carrier’s mission was to support coalition enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. (U.S. Department of Defense)

As a result of these violations and many others, the United States, Great Britain, and France decided to issue an ultimatum and then strike if Hussein did not comply. The allies’ military options were limited by the fact that U.N. representatives remained in Iraq. If his three foes attacked him, Hussein could take hostages from among more than one thousand U.N. representatives. The “no fly” zone policy seemed to be a better option. It would help the Shiites in southern Iraq and possibly inspire the overthrow of Hussein from within the country.

U.N. Resolution 688, which passed in April, 1991, required Iraq to ensure the human and political rights of all of its citizens. Without any legal blessing from the United Nations, the United States and its two allies, Great Britain and France, responded to Hussein’s aggression and adopted a “688 strategy” to defend the rights of Iraqi citizens. The strategy went into effect on August 27, 1992, and established an Iraqi “no fly” zone south of the 32d parallel. The zone covered 47,500 square miles, or about one-fourth of Iraq’s land area. The goals of the strategy were simple: to protect the Shiites, although not from Iraqi ground forces already in the area; to stir up a mutiny in the south; and possibly to inspire a palace coup in Baghdad against Hussein. The strategy was not immediately successful in achieving its three goals, although allied fighter planes continued to keep the skies clear of Iraqi aircraft below the 32d parallel.

The Politics of the Decision

After the Persian Gulf War, American, French, and British aircraft continued to control the skies over the northernmost portion of Iraq. Their goal was to protect the local Kurdish population from the wrath of Hussein. The Kurds were an ethnic minority that rebelled against the Iraqi dictator after the Gulf War. They tried to establish their own state, but the so-called butcher of Baghdad had other ideas. He wanted to reassert his control over northern Iraq and force the Kurds into submission.

To prevent this from happening and also to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state, the United States, Great Britain, and France established a “no fly” zone north of the 36th parallel. The allies vowed to attack any Iraqi aircraft or ground troops that entered the zone and tried to attack the Kurds. The policy appeared to work. The Kurds remained protected, and the Iraqi regime did not bully its way back into northern Iraq.

In the case of southern Iraq, however, things were different. The allies did not establish a “no fly” zone there after the Gulf War, even though local Shiite Muslims also rebelled against Baghdad. The uprising failed, but rebels continued to operate in the vast marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet. Hussein wanted to crush these rebels once and for all and turn the area into a “dead zone.” He deployed 100,000 troops and began a strafing and bombing campaign against the estimated 50,000 Iraqi Shiites living in the marshes.

The Iraqi campaign did not go unnoticed. Max van der Stoel, a U.N. human rights inspector, reported on August 11, 1992, that Hussein was killing his own people. This was a violation of U.N. Resolution 688. The United States and its two allies, Great Britain and France, responded to Hussein’s aggression with their “688 strategy.”

Consequences

The “no fly” zone policy failed to accomplish its most important goals. Because it did not require Iraqi ground forces to retreat north of the 32d parallel, troops stayed in southern Iraq. They drained wells and defoliated marshlands, and they then used tanks and artillery to wipe out completely the Shiite Muslim rebels. The United States, Great Britain, and France may have controlled the skies of southern Iraq, but there was no real resistance to Hussein on the ground. Further, there were few mutinies and coup attempts against his government. By protecting his supporters from the effects of the U.N. economic blockade, Hussein bought their loyalty and remained firmly in power into the next century.

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