PSYOP Leaflets of Operation Desert Fox

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 SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

A modified version of the story first appeared in The Falling Leaf,
the Journal of the International PsyWar Society, No. 164, spring, 1999

American Air Force, Naval, and Marine aircraft, the British RAF, and Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched against military targets in Iraq from 16 to 19 December 1998. The official explanation for this four-day attack was that it was retaliation for Iraq's refusal to allow the inspection of sites as stated in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, agreed upon at the end of the Persian Gulf War. The name of this operation was Desert Fox.

The cause for armed intervention was Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow the United Nations (UNSCOM) weapons inspectors to check for sensitive materials, the so called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were reported to be stored in a warehouse in the compound of the Shu'ba Aadhamiyya offices of the Ba'ath Party in Baghdad.

There is a long history of Saddam Hussein playing “chicken” with the Coalition forces.

In September 1996, Iraq deployed forces north of the 36th Parallel and attacked ethnic Kurds in Northern Iraq. In response to Hussein's refusal to cease these attacks on the Kurdish people, the U.S. launched cruise missiles against military targets inside Iraq under Operation Desert Strike. Hussein soon capitulated, withdrawing his military forces south of the 36th Parallel.

In the Fall of 1997, Saddam Hussein blocked United Nations weapons inspections again, violated the no-fly zone, and threatened to shoot down U2 reconnaissance aircraft. Central Command responded with a land, sea, and air strike force of more than 35,000 U.S. and coalition forces code-named Operation Desert Thunder I.

In November 1998, Saddam once again interfered with the UN inspectors. The U.S. deployed additional troops to Kuwait, including advance parties from the 3d Infantry Division, and two Marine Expeditionary Units. Following negotiations, Saddam Hussein agreed to allow resumption of the U.N. weapons inspections. In mid-November 1998, an additional 2,300 personnel deployed to Kuwait in support of the Central Command Joint Task Force Kuwait code-named Operation Desert Thunder II.

Some background on Operation Desert Fox is mentioned by General Tony Zinni and Tom Clancy in the book Battle Ready, G. P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 2004.

General Zinni, Commander in Chief of the U. S. Army's Central Command says that because of Saddam's constant harassment of the U.N. inspectors, the United States planned to bomb his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) facilities shortly after the inspectors left Iraq. Saddam would regularly escalate the harassment and as soon as it was clear that the United States was about to act, he would back down. On 11 November 1998 the U.N. inspectors were forced out of Iraq and the U.S. Tomahawks were in the tubes ready to fire 24 hours later as part of Operation Desert Viper. Within 15 minutes of the planned attack Saddam agreed to terms and the missiles were shut down and the fighter-bombers were turned around. The Iraqis would watch for the American build-up of forces and when it was obvious that an attack was near, they would move their WMDs and capitulate to the U.N. demands.

In a telephone call with General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the idea of “outfoxing the fox” came up. The Americans would launch the next attack with the forces in-theater without the usual build up. Saddam would have no advance warning and no chance to move his WMDs. When the U.N. inspectors were harassed into pulling out of Iraq on 17 December, the 24-hour attack clock automatically started ticking. Four hours after the inspectors landed in Bahrain the Operation Desert Fox attack was launched. The name was clearly selected because it was part of the plan to outfox Saddam, although some government officials were horrified that it was the same name as given to German General Erwin Rommel during WWII. Zinni adds:  

Although they had suspicions that we would hit them when the inspectors walked out, it turns out that the absence of visible preparations for the strike and the approach of Ramadan seems to have lulled them into a lackadaisical approach to their own preparations. Somebody put out the word to move the equipment and documents the way they normally did, but nobody was in a hurry to do it; so they got caught with their pants down.

The Coalition attacked in force for three days. They bombed command and control, communications and Republican Guard targets. The U.S. Third Army again deployed forces to defend Kuwait. By late December, the Joint Task Force in Kuwait consisted of approximately 6,000 personnel.

The Coalition dropped five different leaflets during the campaign. There has been no in-depth official discussion or publication of the psychological operations (PSYOP) performed during Operation Desert Fox. In addition, every Arabic-speaking individual who translates the leaflets produces a slightly different text. The translations we print are as close to the spirit of the message as possible.

When the United States threatened to bomb Iraq earlier, four aerial leaflets were prepared. On 14 November 1998, an attack was just twenty minutes from occurring when a suddenly conciliatory Saddam Hussein promised a "full and unconditional unrestricted cooperation." The bombers returned to base. The leaflets that had been prepared were stored away for future use. The leaflets are identified by their back, which has black Arabic text on a plain white background. When Saddam refused entry to the United Nations arms inspection teams in December 1998, the coalition decided that it was time to take action. Once again, four leaflets were prepared. A faint Iraqi Eagle on the back overprinted with propaganda text identifies these leaflets. When the campaign began, two leaflets were selected from the first printing, and three leaflets from the second.

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The first leaflet we illustrate shows the Iraqi eagle symbol at the left. A red triangle is at the right. The triangle is the symbol of the elite Republican Guard. The Iraqi Army at its peak was at about 1.7 million troops, including reserves and paramilitary. Separate from the regulars was the corps size Republican Guard Forces Command, which constitutes the shock troops of Iraq's military. By 1987, this Force had grown to three armored divisions, one infantry division, and one commando division. The Iraqi Republican Guard (RG) is the core of the Iraqi military. There are between 50,000 and 80.000 troops in the Republican Guard itself, and an additional 15,000 troops in the Special Republican Guard (SRG).

Over the triangle, the propagandists have printed a cross hairs. The symbolism is clear. The coalition is taking aim at the Republican Guard. The back of the leaflet shows a fainter image of the Iraqi eagle, and the Arabic text:

Our targets are only the forces that back the government in Baghdad. You are not our target, but you are under observation. Do not leave your positions. Do not head south.

This is just the opposite of what the coalition leaflets said during Desert Storm. At the time, the Iraqis were told to leave their positions and walk towards Saudi Arabia to be taken prisoner. This time, the Coalition clearly wanted the regular troops out of harm's way while they pounded Republican Guard positions.

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The second leaflet shows a destroyed Iraqi tank from the Persian Gulf War. At the upper right the date "1411" is shown in Arabic. Muslims date their calendar from the pilgrimage of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, so this would translate to the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) date of 1991. That is why the calendar is called "hijry," the word meaning to move from one place to another. The text on the second leaflet is again over a faint Iraqi eagle and reads in Arabic:

Iraqi soldiers. Attention. This may save your life! Do not challenge the Coalition forces. Do not leave your positions. Do not head south. Only those units who support the Baghdad regime were targeted.

The next three leaflets all show scenes of death and destruction. During the Gulf War our Arab partners were strongly against what they called "atrocity" leaflets. They recommended scenes of friendly Arabs meeting, eating together, and even walking off into the desert moonlight holding hands. It appears that Saudi Arabia was not consulted about these leaflets. The Saudis would have argued against photographs showing such devastation.

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The third leaflet shows a number of destroyed vehicles along the "highway of death." Coalition aircraft caught and massacred the Iraqis on the open highway at the end of the Gulf War as they tried to flee home with their stolen booty. This led directly to General Powell recommending to President Bush that he end the war immediately. Powell feared a world outrage at what might seem to be the wanton killing of retreating soldiers.  The text on the back of the leaflet over a faint Iraqi eagle says in Arabic:

Protect yourself from harm. Do not resist the allied forces. Do not leave your positions. Do not head south. Our goals are only the forces that back the government in Baghdad.

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The fourth leaflet shows a number of Iraqi armored vehicles wrecked in the desert. The back does not have the Iraqi eagle. The text is shorter and was meant to read in Arabic:

This battle was the mother of all battles Saddam. If you try to threaten Kuwait again, the coalition forces will destroy you a second time.

The mother of all battles alludes to Saddam's use of that description during Desert Storm, where he promised the American military "another Vietnam." The Arabic is incorrect on this leaflet and actually says something like:

If you try to expand Kuwait again....

A PSYOP soldier told me:

The error was noted by myself and another NCO who was in Saudi Arabia at the time the leaflets arrived. However, the commander in the rear was not convinced that this would be a problem. He seemed to believe the text was correct. The word was supposed to be "threaten" (ThDD), not "expand" (TmDD). A previous version of the leaflet had the correct text, but during a retranslation, they typed it in wrong (yes, it was merely a typo that got missed). There was another version of this same leaflet with the correct translation dropped, but we had insufficient quantities for the mission. This required them to print more.

Keep this "other version" in mind. We will mention an unknown leaflet that bears the same text at the end of this article.

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B-52 Leaflet

The fifth leaflet shows a very faint silhouette of an American B-52 Stratofortress bomber. The B-52 has appeared on leaflets used during the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and Kosovo. With a bomb load of 60,000 pounds and a speed of almost 600 miles per hour, the B-52 has always been one of the more effective psychological warfare weapons. It is the symbol of American strategic might and resolve.

There are five lines of text over the image of the bomber. The first and last lines are in red; the rest are in black. The Arabic text reads in English:


This is only the beginning. Deploy south and you will be bombed.


On the back of the leaflet, there are nine lines of Arabic text in a vertical format. Once again, the first and last lines are in red, the rest in black. The text reads:


This could have been a real bomb. Coalition forces are watching you. Any units attempting to cross the Kuwaiti border will be destroyed. Abandon your equipment and live. Deploy with your unit south and you will die.


Like the previous item, this leaflet has no faint eagle on the back. It is curious that such a message was disseminated since we know that Operation Desert Fox was a direct result of non-cooperation with weapons inspections, and had nothing to do with a possible threat to Kuwait. We can only assume that there was some concern that Saddam Hussein might see America's problems in other parts of the world as an opportunity for aggression, and the leaflet was prepared and dropped as a preemptive strike against any such move.

All five leaflets are on display at Ft. Bragg, NC, in matted frames. The frames have a small brass plaque which reads "Desert Fox 14-20 DEC 98 - 2.4 million leaflets dropped."

Is it possible that other Desert Fox leaflets exist? The London Daily Telegraph of 29 December 1998 would indicate that the answer is "yes." The article mentions the conflict with Saddam and says, "The United States and Britain have singled out sites such as command and control centers and complexes used by the Republican Guard, the mainstay of Saddam's political power. The leaflets were designed to drive a wedge between factions within the military, a tactic that might have paid dividends if the (military) mutiny reports were true. It is also significant that they were dropped over the south, where the 1991 (Shi'ite) uprising began."

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London Daily Telegraph Newspaper Leaflet

The newspaper illustrates one leaflet. It is not a leaflet that the Coalition dropped. As the third leaflet mentioned above, it clearly shows scene from the Desert Storm "highway of death." There is a line of destroyed civilian trucks and cars, and one tank prominently displayed in the center. The back of the leaflet is not illustrated so it is impossible to tell if it bears the Iraqi Eagle. The newspaper does mention the text:

This was Saddam's Mother of all Battles. If you threaten Kuwait the Coalition forces will destroy you again.

The text seems almost identical to the fourth leaflet above, and probably is so. The minor differences are likely translation preferences. That would seem to indicate that this leaflet was one of the second group of four leaflets without the Iraqi eagle on the back. How was it released to the newspaper? The ways of the military are strange. It is just a convenient accident that allows us to see a leaflet that was repetitious, redundant, depicted too many civilian vehicles, or was simply not good enough.

In 2003 five mysterious Arabic-language leaflets suddenly appeared. There was no explanation for what they were or when they were printed. None had an identifying code number. Because one of the leaflets had the same Iraqi symbol on the back as some of the Desert Fox leaflets, my original assumption was that they were prepared for that campaign but never disseminated. Their status remained in doubt until 2004 when on a working visit to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina; I did see the five leaflets in a large stock about to be destroyed. When I asked, I was told that they were, in fact, non-disseminated Desert Fox leaflets.

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Destroyed Tank Leaflet


The first of the five non-disseminated leaflets shows a destroyed tank overprinted with Arabic text in red. The text reads:

This Iraqi unit attacked Kuwait. Don't make the same mistake." The back of the leaflet bears the Iraqi Eagle and three lines of Arabic text, which translate as: "Stop your operation or you will be destroyed. Leave your equipment and save yourself.

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Coalition Forces bombing Iraqi Tanks

The front of this leaflet depicts three A-10 Warthog fighters flying over a pair of burning Iraqi tanks. The text is:

Iraqi Soldiers. Go back or face your destruction.

The back of the leaflets depicts two A-10 Warthog fighters being directed to an Iraqi tank by U. S. satellites. The text is:

Iraqi Soldiers. We are watching you.

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Coalition Weapon Systems with Kuwaiti and Iraqi Flags

The front of this leaflet depicts half of an Iraqi flag at left and half of a Kuwaiti flag at right. On the Iraqi side a tank has been hit by Coalition forces and is burning. On the Kuwaiti side are an A-10 Warthog, an M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, a M270 multiple launch rocket system, and an artillery piece.

The back has text over an Iraqi Eagle symbol. The text is:

Iraqi soldiers;

- If you attack Kuwait you will be destroyed.

- There will be no gain in your advance. Run away immediately or face your death.

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Destroyed Bridge

This leaflet depicts a destroyed bridge on the front and text on the back. The text on the front of the leaflet is:

You can not advance one more step. Allied forces have destroyed the bridges in front of you.

The text on the back is:

All the roads that lead south have been cut. Your positions are nothing more than our targets. Your equipment faces destruction. Leave or face your fate.

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F18 Hornet Patrolling

This leaflet depicts and American F18 diving over Iraq and an arrow pointing at the Kuwait border. The text is:

Iraqi forces are not allowed to approach within 10km of the Kuwait boarder. Go back now….you are inside the 10km distance from the Kuwait border.

The text on the back is just slightly changed:

We will destroy any Iraqi forces inside this demilitarized zone. Go back now… are inside the 10km distance from the Kuwait border.

What was the result of Operation Desert Fox? After many days of bombing the Pentagon announced that it had damaged or destroyed only 18 of 89 selected targets. Saddam Hussein was unmoved and called his attackers "the agents of Satan" and said, "By God, we will not compromise." The New York Times of 19 December 1998 noted that "U.S. Military planes rained thousands of leaflets on Iraq warning ground troops that if they mobilized they would face bombing raids from the forces assembles on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and at bases scattered around the region." The Coalition Radio Free Iraq broadcast to the Iraqi people four hours a day. This surgical strike served no purpose. Saddam was unchanged and continued a policy that would eventually lead to an Allied invasion of his nation.

However, Michael Knights, a Mendelow defense fellow at The Washington Institute, studied Operation Desert Fox and the use of Allied aircraft over northern and southern Iraq and decided that it led directly to the quick American 2003 Victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His article, The Long View of No-Fly and No-Augmentation Zones states in part:

Coalition ground forces entered Iraq on the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in contrast to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the ground assault followed forty-three days of air strikes involving an average of 2,500 sorties per day. This difference was due in large part to the fact that much of the work of preparing the battlefield had been completed well before the current operation began. Specifically, coalition air forces have long engaged in large-scale activities in Iraq's no-fly and no-augmentation zones, flying as many as 1,000 sorties per day -- substantially more than the 700 sorties flown during the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Over the past eleven years, violations in these zones have resulted in an average of 34,000 sorties per year over Iraq -- the equivalent of fighting Desert Storm every three years. Iraqi resistance and U.S.-British responses in the no-fly zones steeply escalated following Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. Air superiority was secured across most of the country (excluding Baghdad) before the war through the gradual degradation of the Iraqi air force and constant strikes against the static and mobile ground-based elements of Iraq's air defense systems.

The author encourages anyone with additional information to write to