The U.S., British, and Turkish coalition enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq says it has so far not been given any orders to prepare for a larger campaign against Saddam Hussein. For weeks, the international media has been speculating that the Bush Administration is planning some type of military action to remove the Iraqi leader from power. VOA's Alisha Ryu recently visited the coalition's air base in Incirlik, Turkey, to assess the mood and the obstacles ahead if the United States did decide to attack.
An F-16 CJ fighter jet roars off into sky on its way to northern Iraq. Its wings are laden with anti-radiation and heat seeking missiles.
As part of the Operation Northern Watch, enforcing a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel, the F-16 pilot's main objective is to hunt down active Iraqi launch sites for surface-to-air missiles, known as SAMs, and to destroy these sites if possible. The pilot's second objective is to come back alive.
The Pentagon says Baghdad in recent months has been quietly moving a significant number of SAMs into no-fly zone areas in northern and southern Iraq to harass patrolling fighters. Some U.S. officials speculate that Saddam Hussein is now fixated on shooting down an allied jet to bolster his popularity among anti-Western Arabs and to generate opposition in the United States against putting U.S. troops and pilots in harm's way. The commander of the operation's center at Incirlik, U.S. Air Force Colonel Buck Burgess, will not say how many SAMs Baghdad may have moved but he confirms the missiles pose an enormous threat. "They are not always up north. But most of these are mobile systems and he moves them around and places them at different places at different times to complicate our ability to find them, not because we're going to bomb them, but because he wants to shoot one of us down," he says. "That's his whole goal."
The northern no-fly zone was created in 1991 to protect ethnic Kurds against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed them at the end of the Gulf War for rising up against Baghdad. A year later, the southern no-fly zone was set up to keep the Iraqi leader from launching operations against the Muslim Shi'ite population there. The two no-fly zones cover about 60 percent of the country.
More than a decade later, Operation Northern Watch commanders say the mission still performs a vital role. While fighter jets keep the Iraqi military out of allied-patrolled air space, communication and surveillance planes constantly search for clues showing Saddam Hussein trying to build weapons of mass destruction.
Since international weapons inspectors were forced to leave Baghdad four years ago, the West has been unable to effectively monitor Iraq's attempts to revive its nuclear and biological weapons development.
Baghdad says it will readmit the inspectors only if their return is linked to an end to the 12 year-old international economic sanctions and a halt to U.S. military patrols over northern and southern Iraq. The United States has rejected the idea.
Under allied protection, the Kurds in the northeastern corner of Iraq have flourished - enjoying relative prosperity and autonomy. According to Kurdish officials, 70 percent of the villages now have a clean water supply and infant mortality rates are half those in the rest of Iraq.
The commanding general of Operation Northern Watch, Edward Ellis, says those statistics show the allied operation has been able to achieve its primary goal. "Are we a Kurdish bodyguard? Nah. But does someone know that they've got a big brother if they needed it? Yea," he says.
Ironically, that very success is now hampering efforts for the Bush Administration to rally popular support in the region for its next possible move in the war against terrorism: removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Senior U.S. officials in recent weeks have reportedly stepped up talks with Kurdish opposition leaders to discuss how the Kurds could help oust the Iraqi president. Opposition members contacted by VOA in Turkey declined to be interviewed about the talks. But they hinted at some major obstacles ahead.
While the Kurds, whose forces number about 85,000. could act as a proxy army in northern Iraq, most are reluctant to hand over their new-found autonomy in exchange for a vague promise of a better future or even the creation of their own country.
They fear that a U.S. attack could end the oil-for-food program the United Nations adopted in 1995 to ease the effects of the international embargo on Iraq. The U.N. program buys oil from Iraq so that the government can buy food and other humanitarian goods.
Right now, the Kurds receive 13 percent of that oil money from Iraq, which accounts for 60 percent of their economy. They worry that a war could severely disrupt that cash flow. They also note the possibility that the next Iraqi leader could end the oil-revenue sharing arrangement altogether.
Still, if Washington is planning some kind of military action against Iraq, the men and women conducting Operation Northern Watch say they are ready to shift into high gear. Colonel Marc Felman is the man responsible for combat readiness of U.S. forces at Incirlik. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a strategic location. In some ways, we are the last bastion before you get to the anti-Western forces that we're most worried about," he says. "Our job is to be ready and to listen to what our civilian bosses tell us to do."
But those orders may be difficult to execute out of Incirlik if the United States' Operation Northern Watch partner, Turkey, decides to reject allied requests to use its base as a staging area for the war.
While the government in Ankara strongly supports the air patrols, it has deep concerns about the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Turkey has had a long-standing conflict with insurgents among its own Kurdish minorities, who often took refuge in northern Iraq.
The Turkish government also fears that a war just across the border could badly damage the country's lucrative tourism industry and plunge the nation into economic chaos.
Earlier this month, President Bush denied that his administration has a war plan for Iraq. But calling Iraq a part of an "axis of evil," he has also made it clear that he will not allow Saddam Hussein to build weapons of mass destruction.
The United States is turning its sights on Iraq partly because it fears the Iraqi leader already has stocks of nuclear and biological weapons and partly because he might supply them to followers of terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden.