Good bomb, good bomb!

Observations on Iraq. By Stephen Grey in Balad

A patrol of American soldiers is under attack from mortars and rocket fire. They call for help from an aircraft circling high above. The pilot points a laser at a flat-bed truck from where the mortar fire is coming, and seconds later a Hellfire missile streaks down from the sky, destroying the vehicle and killing the rebels.

"Good bomb, good bomb," a soldier shouts over the radio, thanking a pilot who has just saved the troops' lives. He speaks as though this pilot were close by.

In fact, the plane above the troops in Iraq is an unmanned robot Predator aircraft and its "pilot" is sitting at a desk at Nellis airbase in the Nevada Desert, just outside Las Vegas - more than 7,000 miles away - controlling the plane via satellite link.

At the giant US air force base at Balad in northern Iraq, Predator controllers described a surreal world in which a swarm of these little aircraft fly constantly over Iraq collecting intelligence. They are equipped with spy cameras and two deadly air-to-ground missiles, but have no pilots on board. Pilots and operators at Balad maintain, arm and can take off and land the Predators; but for the greater part of the plane's 18-hour missions over Iraq, they are piloted from the United States.

"When I'm back in Nellis, I can be flying a mission over Iraq with the Predator, and then go home and take my children out to a ball game," said Kurt Scheible, a 41-year-old air force major and former B-1 strategic bomber pilot.

British pilots and technicians, operating under US command, are also involved in the spy-plane operation, which is split between Iraq and Las Vegas. "It's a joint effort. The Predators are there to support all coalition forces in Iraq, including British troops, and we are playing our part," an RAF spokeswoman told me , speaking over the phone from London.

The 27ft Predator, which is almost im-possible to see or hear from the ground, can relay close-up video pictures of a battlefield, day and night, that can be relayed live to anywhere, including the White House and President Bush.

Air force pilots who release their high-powered bombs from thousands of feet above ground are often described as shielded and immune from the full horrors of warfare, unlike the infantry soldier who directly witnesses the shocking effects of high-explosive weapons.

Predator pilots are even more isolated from the real world. Garrick Hill, a 44-year-old RAF flight lieutenant and former long-range bomber pilot, said that when operating a Predator, a pilot had almost no peripheral vision or awareness: "You really have to think yourself into the cockpit. It requires a lot of imagination."

The Predator control room at the Balad base would have looked familiar to anyone who played video or arcade computer games. Apart from his instruments, the pilot's only way of "seeing" is through a fixed camera lens in the nose of the aircraft that provides a view of about 30 per cent of the sky. But Scheible believes that the Predator's precision can help save innocent lives. "With this weapon, I can deliver a very precise surgical strike that avoids collateral damage," he said. "I can take out an individual vehicle without destroying everything around."

But there is still widespread concern in Iraq, shared by some within the military, that too many innocent lives are being lost from the increasing number of US air strikes, most of which are delivered by high-powered F-16 fighter bombers. Even when intelligence is accurate and the air strike precise, commanders know that they will kill innocents.

At a recent briefing in Baghdad, one senior US military official conceded that if a terrorist - say, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - was thought to be inside a building somewhere in the rebel enclave of Fallujah, the house might well be struck even if it was known that there were civilians in it. "It is a question of weighing up the risks," he said.

Chris Weggeman, a 39-year-old lieutenant colonel who commands a squadron of F-16s based at Balad, said he told his pilots that they had to be as accurate as if they were "shooting into the backsides of fleas". Everyone was aware that "a bad bomb", in which innocents died, could swing opinion against their mission.

But, Weggeman also said, his men knew that defeating the insurgents and terrorists was essential to creating a new, democratic Iraq: "Every time we drop our bombs it is part of our effort to rebuild Iraq and give them a better country."