“The No-Fly Zone War” (U.S./U.K.-Iraq Conflict)


Tomahawk Missile Desert Fox

Tomahawk Missile fired at Iraqi Targets in Operation Desert Fox, 1998

The "No-Fly Zone War" pitted the air and naval forces of the United States and the United Kingdom (also referred to as "Great Britain"), against the air defenses of Iraq. This conflict proved to be largely ignored by the media and the public in both the U.S. and in the U.K., though it impacted the military and the citizens of Iraq on an almost weekly basis, especially after the intense "Desert Fox" bombing campaign of 1998. The roots of this conflict are quite simple to trace: the inconclusive and vague cease-fire agreement ending the Gulf War of 1990-1991. This agreement called on the Iraqi government to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to search for prohibited weapons in Iraq, and, perhaps more importantly, allowed the Coalition Allies (originally the U.S., the U.K. and France), to enforce what came to be called "No-Fly Zones" over northern and southern Iraq.

The original intent of these zones was to protect the rebellious Iraqi minorities (Kurds and Shiite Muslims) in northern and southern Iraq, respectively. The Coalition was permitted to fly warplanes over these zones to prevent Saddam Hussein's government from using military aircraft to attack these minorities. As time progressed though, the No-Fly Zones became a means for the Allies to force Iraq to comply with UN and Coalition demands, often related to the status of the weapons inspectors.

As tensions mounted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the possibility of a major escalation between Iraq and the U.S. increased dramatically, and the violence in the No-Fly Zone increased in preparation for the beginning of the Third Persian Gulf War: "Operation Iraqi Freedom", which began on March 19, 2003. In historical terms, the No-Fly Zone War is considered to have ended on March 19, 2003, when "Operation Iraqi Freedom" began and this conflict segued into the larger war. All three of the U.S.-led Coalition wars with Iraq (the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the 1991-2003 No-Fly Zone War, and the 2003 Iraq War ) can really be seen as one long, extended conflict, but for classification purposes, are seen as separate conflicts. (written on March 22, 2003)

The text below shows the dates of previous updates. For now, that will remain unchanged in order to provide some historical perspective.

As of this writing (Sept. 2, 2002), tensions between the United States and Iraq are escalating, with President Bush leaning toward an invasion of Iraq with the goal of toppling the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.  Such a war would be part of the American War on Terrorism sparked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Bush Administration explains its apprehension with Iraq with two specific concerns.  First, it accuses Iraq of not honoring the 1991 cease-fire agreement of 1991 by no longer allowing United Nations weapons inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction (WOMD).  Examples of WOMDs include biological and chemical weapons, as well as nuclear arms.  In 1998, Iraq barred the UN inspectors from the country, prompting American and British air strikes (see “Operation Desert Fox” below).  Since then, no inspectors have been allowed back in.  The Bush Administration is convinced that the Saddam government is building WOMDs and would be willing to use them on the United States, and America’s allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.  The second concern revolves around Iraqi support for international terrorism.  While a long-time supporter of Palestinian efforts to fight Israel, the allegation that the September 11 terrorists may have enjoyed Iraqi support could be a determining factor in a future invasion of Iraq by the U.S.  In late summer, 2002, members of the U.S. administration were publicly discussing and justifying a possible future pre-emptive attack, while members of the U.S. Congress and the media are asking for more information.  Most traditional American allies around the world are also expressing doubts as to the wisdom or the need to invade Iraq.  Meanwhile, American and British air strikes on Iraqi targets in the “No-Fly Zones” accelerated.  In the week preceding Sept. 2, 2002, Coalition forces (U.S. and British forces) conducted six air strikes on Iraqi targets, with the ostensible justification that the targets posed a threat to the air patrols in the No-Fly Zones over northern and southern Iraq (see Washington Post article on the latest attacks).  This conflict could soon escalate into a major war.

Since American and British forces carried out Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 against Iraq, this "forgotten" war in the Middle East has only become more intense. According to the New York Times in an article on August 13, 1999, American and British forces have escalated the continuing war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Since the beginning of 1999 through August 1999, Allied pilots launched over 1,100 missiles against 359 Iraqi targets. That number equals nearly three times the amount of ordnance used in the four-day Desert Fox strike. Also, the pilots in the Iraq War have flown two-thirds the number of missions as NATO pilots in the 1999 Kosovo War. By all accounts, Iraqi forces continue to target their radar and fire missiles at Allied warplanes despite the punishment inflicted from the air. The estimated, unofficial cost of this war to U.S. and British taxpayers is around $1 billion per year. As of August 1999, over 200 military planes, 19 naval ships and 22,000 American military personnel are committed to enforcing the "no-fly zones" and to fighting Iraq. In addition, reports indicate that the death rate for small children has doubled in Iraq over the past decade. These child deaths are attributed to the continuing war and economic sanctions on Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to live up to the 1991 cease-fire agreement.

Page Summary:

In the years since the Gulf War (1990-1991), the United States and Iraq have engaged in a state of continued hostility. Under the terms of the armistice, which ended the war over Kuwait in 1991, Iraq agreed to allow United Nations weapons, inspectors to search for and destroy suspected weapons of mass destruction, (WOMDs). Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are included in this category, and Iraq is known to have previously used chemical weapons in warfare with Iran and with Kurdish rebels. In 1981, Israel launched an air attack on the Iraqi nuclear weapons research site of Osirak, thereby publicizing the early stages of Baghdad's nuclear program.

In order to force Iraq to comply with these restrictions on weaponry, the United Nations and the United States have conducted an economic embargo of Iraq, which has devastated the economy, and the infrastructure of the nation. Iraq claims several hundred thousand children have died of malnutrition and poor medical care resulting from these economic sanctions.

Periodically, this "cold war" erupts into open warfare, as the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein defies the UN and the U.S., prompting military responses.

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Map Source: U.S. Air Force http://www.af.mil/photos/art_maps.shtml

NAME OF CONFLICT: U.S.-Iraq Conflict



United States, United Kingdom and various members of the United Nations






BEGAN: 1991

ENDED: March 19, 2003

TYPE OF CONFLICT: Inter-State (between countries)


PREDECESSOR: Second Persian Gulf War: "Operation Desert Storm" (1990-1991)

CONCURRENT: Iraqi Kurdish Rebellions (1991-present), Shiite Muslim Rebellion in Iraq (1991-Present), Turkish Kurdish Rebellion (1985-Present), bin Laden War (1998?-Present), Kosovo War [NATO-Serbia Conflict] (1999), U.S.-Afghan War (2001-Present)

SUCCESSOR: Third Persian Gulf War :"Operation Iraqi Freedom" (2003)


The main cause of the continued hostility between the United States and Iraq is disagreement over the extent and need for continued United Nations inspections. The U.S. and the UN claim that Iraq is not living up to the terms of the agreement and are continuing to develop WOMDs. Iraq denies this and claims that the U.S. is attempting to subvert their national sovereignty and cripple the country through continued economic sanctions. Periodically, the government of Saddam Hussein attempts to force the UN weapons inspectors from the country and the U.S. and UN respond with threats and occasional bomb and missile attacks.

Another point of contention is the continuation of the "no-fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq. Originally designed to protect the rebellious Kurdish minority in the north and the oppressed Shiite minority in the south, these zones are Iraqi airspace in which Iraqi aircraft are not allowed to fly. Gulf Coalition air forces have occasionally enforced these zones by shooting down Iraqi planes and attacking Iraqi air defense missile batteries on the ground.

In December of 1998, the Iraqi government evicted the UNSCOM inspectors, accusing them of spying for the American CIA. This allegation seems to hold some truth to it. As a result of the end of Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM, the United States and Britain unleashed Operation Desert Fox on Iraq. From December 16th through the 20th, Allied warplanes and cruise missiles hammered Iraqi targets. Saddam then declared that Iraq would no longer recognize the validity of the "no-fly zones" and would actively contest the Allies for control of all Iraqi airspace. This has resulted in nearly continual combat in the skies over Iraq as air-defense missile batteries attempt to shoot down American and British warplanes. In response, Allied forces attack these missile batteries and occasionally engage in punishing air strikes on other targets in Iraq.


Over the years, the continued conflict between the United States and Iraq has erupted several times into violence. The following chart details those incidents of combat. As new attacks occur, this chart will be updated. Incidents begin with the earliest dates, with more recent events at the bottom.

Operation Name
Nations Involved
Type of Action
Operation Southern Watch

August 2, 1992

U.S. & UN



Establishment of "no-fly zone".

The "no-fly zone" is imposed over south Iraq as a means of halting air attacks on Shiite Muslim rebels. The United States begins air patrols of the zone.

Operation Southern Watch

December 28, 1992




Air combat to enforce Operation Southern Watch "no-fly zone."

A US plane shoots down an Iraqi Mig-25 when it enters the "no-fly zone."

Operation Southern Watch

January 13, 1993

U.S. , Britain and France



Retaliatory air and missile strike.

Gulf coalition forces strike Iraqi radar and missile sites near the cities of Nasiriyah, Samawa, Najaf and Al Amara. Over 100 aircraft take part in these attacks.


January 17, 1993




Retaliatory missile strike.

The United States struck the Zafraniyah Nuclear Fabrication Facility, near Baghdad, with up to 42 Tomahawk Cruise missiles. This strike was designed to punish Saddam Hussein for Iraq's non-compliance with United Nations weapons inspections.


June 27, 1993




Retaliatory air strike.

The United States fires 24 cruise missiles from two US Navy ships at an intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. Iraq claims eight people are killed in the assault. President Clinton ordered this attack as retaliation for an alleged plot to assassinate former President George Bush on a trip to Kuwait.


October 7, 1994

U.S. & Kuwait



Military buildup due to renewed crisis.

US planes and 54,000 troops head for the Gulf as Iraq's troops appear to be on the verge of launching an offensive on Kuwait. Crisis is averted as Iraq pulls back its army.


August 31, 1996

Iraq and KDP (Kurdish Faction)


PUK (Kurdish Faction)

Iraqi army support for one side in Kurdish civil war inside "protected area" in Northern Iraq.

Iraq seizes the city of Irbil inside the Kurdish "safe haven" protected by US-led troops.

Operation Desert Strike

September 3 and 4, 1996




Retaliatory missile strike in response to Iraqi military actions.

The United States fires 44 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Iraqi military targets. President Clinton extends the "no-fly zone" to cover parts of Baghdad and central Iraq.

Operation Desert Fox

December 16 through December 20, 1998

U.S. and Britain



Retaliatory missile and air strikes to punish Iraq for non-cooperation with UNSCOM's inspections.

The U.S. and Britain attacked sites related to the production of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Targets hit included airfields, military command centers, suspected missile factories and an oil refinery. Bases and headquarters for Saddam's Republican Guard were also hit. As a result of these attacks, the Iraqi government declared an end to all UNSCOM inspections and said it would militarily challenge the "no-fly" zones.


December 29, 1998

U.S. and Britain



Iraqi missile batteries fired on U.S. aircraft over the northern "no-fly" zone.

The Allied warcraft returned fire and destroyed the Iraqi air-defense battery.


December 30, 1998

U.S. and Britain



Iraqi missile batteries fired on U.S. and British aircraft over the southern "no-fly" zone.

The Allied warcraft returned fire and destroyed the Iraqi air-defense battery.


December 30, 1998- March 19, 2003

U.S. and Britain



Continued bomb and missile attacks by the U.S. and Britain.

Since Desert Fox, the Allies have engaged in almost daily attacks as Iraq attempts to enforce its sovereignty over the "no-fly" zones. After Desert Fox, Iraq ejected all UN inspectors and declared the "no-fly" zones to be illegal. Violence increased as tensions mounted during the lead-in to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

*Note: It was reported that when the NATO assaults on Yugoslavia/Serbia began in the Kosovo War, Iraq and Yugoslavia communicated information regarding U.S. and British air tactics. Also, unconfirmed reports indicate that the two nations traded and/or sold to each other military hardware.


1. In effect, the Gulf War never really ended, but merely shifted into a type of cold war, with lots of yelling, threats and rhetoric interspersed with a few brief moments of violence. Since December of 1998, the violence has escalated markedly.

2. Continued tension in the Gulf region. This has the effect of disrupting the worldwide oil markets and has also disrupted stock exchanges around the globe.

3. A continued drain on the military resources of the United States and other Gulf Coalition allies. Increasing criticism of the Gulf monarchies who allow Coalition forces to use their countries as staging areas for action against Iraq.

4. As a result of the economic embargo against their nation, the Iraqi people have suffered greatly. The nation's infrastructure is collapsing and thousands of children have died as the poorer elements of the society are hit by the sanctions.


Iraq-- Several dozen military casualties resulting from air attacks. Civilian deaths due to the sanctions run into the thousands. Exact figures are not available. Operation Desert Fox was first reported by Iraq to have killed "thousands" of people, but newer numbers indicate casualties in the low hundreds.

Gulf Coalition Allies -- No reported casualties from Iraqi fire.

SOURCES: (published)

1. Kohn, George C. Dictionary of Wars. New York: Facts On File Publications, 1999.


Links And Sources

News Links

U.S. Bombing Watch--A compilation of data on U.S. air strikes on Iraq.

Yahoo! Full Coverage of the Iraq-U.S. Conflict.

New York Times: Issues In Depth: Attack on Iraq--News source on the Iraq conflict.

BBC News: Iraq - Years of tension: 1992-96--Background information from the British Broadcasting Corporation on the ongoing conflict between Iraq and the UN

Confrontations Since the Gulf War-- Very detailed listing of ALL Iraq-U.S./UN confrontations since 1991. Tons of facts available on this site.

Arabic News-- News from the Arab World.

IraqNet News Center-- Good resource for finding news and other links on Iraq and the Middle East.

History and Politics Links on Iraq and the conflict

The History Guy: Issues: Iraq-U.S. Conflict--The History Guy's page containing links to many Iraq sources. Part of this website's Politics section.

Iraq chronology-- Well-detailed site listing significant actions from December of 1998 to June of 1999.

The Iraq Foundation --"is a non-profit, non-governmental organization working for democracy and human rights in Iraq, and for a better international understanding of Iraq's potential as a contributor to political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."*Descriptive statement is from the Iraq Foundation website.

DOD 101: United States Military Operations-- Fascinating website run by the Federation of American Scientists. On this site you will find tons of data on US military operations going back decades.

Iraq History-- A very detailed accounting of Iraqi/Mesopotamian history covering Biblical times to the Present.

UNSCOM-- The United Nations Special Commission, the organization that conducts the weapons inspections in Iraq. This page is part of the UN website.

Iraqi Rulers--Part of the Iraq4ever website. Lists the rulers of Iraq from independence to the present.

Iraq History--Part of the Iraq4ever website. Includes quite a bit of detail on the history of Iraq and the Mesopotamia region.

Anti-War Links

Iraq Action Coalition--"The Iraq Action Coalition (IAC) is an independent grassroots coalition dedicated to ending the war on the people of Iraq. IAC provides information and analysis on the devastating effects of the continuing war (sanctions)." **Descriptive statement taken from IAC Homepage.**

The Sanctions War Is Killing Iraqi Children--Page detailing the suffering of Iraqi children resulting from the economic sanctions. Part of IAC website.

Iraq Crisis Antiwar Homepage--

Physicians for Global Survival (PGS): The Gulf War of 1991 Sanctions and Iraq--Site maintained by a physicians anti-war organization. Contains many interesting links.

Siahkal News: Wars--Web page devoted to news and politics from Iran. This page deals with the war in neighboring Iraq.

The United Nations Resolutions Links

Resolution 1137 - Nov. 12, 1997

Approves travel sanctions against senior Iraqi officials.

Resolution 1134 & Resolution 1115 - Oct. 23 & June 21, 1997

Demand that Iraq cooperate fully with the inspections regime.

Resolution 986 - April 14, 1995

Approves sale of Iraqi oil for food and humanitarian relief.

Resolution 687 - April 3, 1991

Formally ends the 1991 Persian Gulf War and authorizes the inspection and elimination of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Resolution 661 - Aug. 6, 1990

Imposes a trade and financial embargo on Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Establishes a special sanctions committee to implement the resolution and calls upon U.N. members to protect the assets of Kuwait around the world.

Resolution 660 - Aug. 2, 1990

Condemns the invasion of Kuwait, demands Iraq's unconditional, immediate withdrawal and calls on both countries to begin negotiations.

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