The tragic destruction of two American helicopters by two American fighter planes over northern Iraq is a small victory for Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator. If it leads to divisions among allies and partners, that would be a major victory. And should it propel an American withdrawal of protection from the Iraqi Kurdish minority north of the 36th parallel, his victory would be massive.
How the mistake could happen in broad daylight with no fog of war and no record of Iraqi aircraft in the no-fly zone for the past 15 months requires the most exhaustive investigation the Pentagon can make. Errors can be human, mechanical or systemic. American commanders need to know which this was to ensure against its recurrence.
Not only does friendly fire kill troops in every war -- some one-fourth of American casualties in the gulf war -- but fatalities occur in peacetime military training, too. It does not mean that any is acceptable.
This occurred at a time of no hostility but rising tension, when an Iraqi probe of no-fly-zone enforcement might have been anticipated. Saddam Hussein has deployed an ominous army on the 36th parallel, as though to invade. Persecution of Kurds outside the zone has increased. Acts of sabotage and terror inside the zone against Kurds, relief workers and foreign journalists have been attributed to his intelligence service.
U.S. relations with Turkey are key, because the whole effort of saving the Iraqi Kurdish population from starvation and persecution is mounted from there. Islamic political consciousness is growing in NATO's only Islamic member, posing problems for its elected government, powerful armed forces and secular society. Turkey is incensed at the West's toleration of Serbian persecution of Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians. The Turkish government is hostile to Kurdish nationalism among Turkey's own Kurds, and has attacked Kurdish guerrilla bases on Iraqi soil.
British and French as well as American planes fly from Incirlik in Turkey to enforce the U.N. ban on Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel. A major U.N. humanitarian operation helps feed millions of Kurds there. With such protections withdrawn, the frustrated Saddam Hussein would wage war on that population. In the Middle East, the tyrant claims victory for merely surviving the 1991 war that the Bush administration thinks it won over his forces. An ignominious departure of Yanks and a free hand against the Kurds would make that a triumph.
The incident which killed 26 American, Turkish, British and French personnel will be used wherever U.S. force is on display to denigrate American military competence. How much worse if it should also cast doubt on American will.