WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- The United States could fight a war against Iraq even if Germany refuses to allow U.S. aircraft to fly from its bases in that country, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe said Tuesday.
"We have strung out bases in Europe so if a nation chose not to allow us (to use one of them), we would have other options," Gen. Gregory "Speedy" Martin said at a breakfast in Washington.
There are six main air bases in Europe, a sufficient number to allow one to be dropped out of a war equation if need be, he said.
"Need five lose one," he said.
Two of the bases, however, are in Germany: Ramstein and Spangdahlem.
The others are Royal Air Force Bases Lakenheath and Mildenhall in England; Aviano AB in Italy, and Incirlik AB in Turkey. Spain also hosts U.S. aircraft at Moron Air Base near Seville. It normally serves as a tanker base but became a primary bomber base during the Persian Gulf War and is now used by the Air Force as a staging base for its expeditionary air forces.
But Martin says it is too early to guess what Germany will do if the United States declares war on Iraq.
"If Germany were to decide not to allow us (to use the bases), it would be (a) very, very serious issue," he said. "But we are in an election. A leader will make very strong and bold statements" when he is running for office.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faces a vote on Sept. 22.
In August, Schroeder said Germany will not participate in an attack on Iraq.
"We are still far away from achieving peace in the Middle East -- to talk about an attack against Iraq now is wrong," Schroeder said. "Under my leadership, Germany will not take part in that."
Martin said he expects that stand might soften after the election.
"Once the election is over, most European countries are coalition governments, and at that point, the direction of the government will change," he said. "It's (too) early for us to get the emotional juices, draw lines in the sand."
Meanwhile, the United States has stepped up its attacks on key parts of the Iraqi air defense system. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that he recently directed strikes against command and control facilities while jets enforced the southern and northern no-fly zones. Until recently, U.S. aircraft attacked only missile launchers and radars that routinely targeted them.
Of particular concern is the newly laid, buried fiber optics cable system that is linking together far-flung nodes of the air defense system, allowing the Iraqis to improve their targeting against coalition aircraft by tracking them across the sky and passing off coordinates and radar signatures.
"When you start to lay in communications underground, you change the nature of your tactical and operational level communication," Martin said.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been "conscientiously improving command and control to make it more robust," Martin said. "That problem has become bigger and we have to deal with it, and we are."
Four years of attacks on radars, launchers and command and communications facilities has degraded the air defense system, Martin said, but there is more to be done.
"We would have liked to have been able to do more damage over the years," he said. "They are experienced, we can't forget that. We have to be bold and creative."
No-fly zone enforcement was relatively peaceful until December 1998, when Iraq finally asked U.N. arms inspectors to leave. The United States and Britain launched a four-day attack on Baghdad in retribution. Since then, Iraq has resisted the almost-daily flights, targeting aircraft with radars and missiles as the opportunity has arisen.
The jets have responded by picking off those assets and more recently attacking the stationary command facilities that leverage those weapons into a networked air defense.
"It's unfortunate (Saddam) continues to put those hardware and people at risk day after day," Martin said. "It's unconscionable."
U.S. European Command enforces the northern no-fly zone, largely by flying from Incirlik, Turkey. U.S. Central Command enforces the southern no-fly zone.
While a war with Iraq would be run by Central Command, European Command would coordinate many combat and support aircraft and services; in Afghanistan, it provided nearly all the humanitarian relief and continues to provide most of the supplies to Central Command's troops. In the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Air Forces Europe contributed more than 180 aircraft and 5,400 people to the battle in Iraq.
Whether the United States will begin a war with Iraq remains an open question, but in Martin's eyes, the justification is already there.
A "pre-emptive" strike on Baghdad, in his opinion, would be a logical extension on the global war on terrorism, given Iraq's alleged support for at least six terrorist organizations.
"Is that really a pre-emptive action given that you are already at war?" Martin asked. "That's a question that honest partners will never actually come to an agreement on."
According to the Pentagon, Iraq supports the Abu Nidal Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Front, the Mujahedin al Khalq, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, all of which are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.