Iraq said it had received the first batch of Sukhoi warplanes from Russia as it pressed a counter-attack on Sunday against Sunni militants whose offensive threatens to tear the country apart.
The arrival of the fighter jets comes with Iraqi forces, backed by aerial cover, pushing to retake the militant-held city of Tikrit and world leaders urging a speeding up of government formation following elections in April.
The newly-purchased Su-25 ground attack jets are expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible, bolstering Iraq’s air power as it combats a sweeping offensive by militants, led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that has killed more than 1,000 people and sparked a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands displaced.
But it remains unclear who will fly them – executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s air force had Su-25s, but even if they were both trusted and willing, those pilots are unlikely to have had experience flying the aircraft in more than a decade.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday announced that Baghdad was buying more than a dozen of the warplanes from Russia in a deal that could be worth up to US$500 million.
While the United States has begun sending military advisers to help Iraqi commanders and is flying armed drones over Baghdad, Iraqi officials have voiced frustration that multi-billion dollar deals for US-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have not been expedited.
Iraqi forces have for days been pressing a campaign to retake Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, which fell to the militants on June 11.
Thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and bomb disposal units, have been engaged in the battle for the city – with air strikes adding firepower to the counter-offensive.
According to Maliki’s security spokesman, Iraqi forces are co-ordinating with US advisers over “important targets” for the air attacks.
The spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive was launched on June 9, while the UN puts the overall death toll at over 1,000, mostly civilians.
The US has publicly pushed for political reconciliation and while it has stopped short of calling for the premier to go, it has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq in the time since American troops withdrew in late-2011.
US officials have also said a proposed US$500-million plan to arm and train moderate rebels in neighbouring Syria could also help Iraq fight ISIL, which operates in both countries.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Saturday in Damascus, meanwhile, that Moscow “will not remain passive to the attempts by some groups to spread terrorism in the region.”
“The situation is very dangerous in Iraq and the foundations of the Iraqi state are under threat.”
Ryabkov, whose country is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backer, did not elaborate on what steps Russia might take.
World leaders have insisted on a political settlement among Iraq’s Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered among the country’s Shiite majority, has urged political leaders to quickly form a government after parliament convenes on Tuesday.
Maliki, who has publicly focused on a military response to the crisis, has acknowledged that political measures are also necessary, but politicians have nevertheless cautioned that naming a new cabinet could still take a month or more.
Despite unity calls, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in particular has said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other areas from which federal forces withdrew as the insurgents advanced.
International agencies have sounded the alarm over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town and 1.2 million displaced in Iraq this year.
The International Organisation for Migration has warned that aid could not reach tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis, and called for humanitarian corridors.