With new US planes slow to arrive, Iraq seeks remnants of Saddam's air force to bomb ISIL

With new US aircraft not yet delivered, Tehran is asked to return remnants of Saddam-era force

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2014, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Frustrated with the pace of US deliveries of jets and attack helicopters, the Iraqi government has resorted to negotiating the return of decades-old planes from Iran to use against insurgents.

Iran has been receptive to the demands and is working on refurbishing an unspecified number of jets, Ammar Toma, a member of the Iraqi parliament's defence and security committee, said on Friday.

Government and military officials and two other lawmakers confirmed the negotiations.

The planes are among more than 100 Iraqi jets, including Soviet-made Sukhoi bombers and MiGs, that were flown to Iran by fleeing Iraqi pilots during the 1991 Gulf war. If delivered, they would join second-hand fighters from Belarus and Russia to create a ragtag air force that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hoping can help reverse insurgent gains.

Iraq is desperate for air power to strike militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Isis) and has expressed annoyance that long-awaited US contracts for F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters are yet to be fulfilled.

"If we had air support, none of this would have happened," Maliki complained in a BBC interview on Thursday. He said Iraq was deluded when it signed contracts with the United States, and that second-hand planes from Russia and Belarus should arrive in the next few days.

But with the United States holding back on air strikes and no jets of its own, Iraq has been forced to rely on fixed-wing propeller planes and helicopters armed with US-supplied Hellfire missiles for aerial attacks.

With its first US-supplied F-16s not expected to arrive until autumn, the planes from Iran and second-hand jets from Russia and Belarus are an unsatisfactory stopgap, officials say.

"These planes are over 20 years old," said a senior military officer, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to discuss the negotiations. He voiced concerns that using the outdated technology could mean a large numbers of civilian casualties.

"Even when you get them, you still need training for pilots, they aren't just taxis that one can just jump into and drive," he added, pointing out that many of the Iraqis trained to fly them are now too old.

Iran impounded about 130 planes after fleeing Iraqi pilots sought sanctuary in the country during they Gulf war, Iraqi officials say. Iran argued that they amounted to reparations for the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Despite the sensitivities, Iran now looks likely to return them, said Toma and one senior military official.

"Iran is worried that the state might fall, so they will help any way they can," said the military official. He said regular visits by the commander of Iran's elite Quds force were evidence of Tehran's firm backing.

Some of the planes have been junked, but the Su-24s are serviceable, and some of them have been absorbed into the Iranian air force and kept in working order, according to Washington Institute analyst Michael Knights.

"It could be a sneaky way of using Iranian airpower," he said. "They could keep Iranian pilots flying that stuff - all you are changing is what's painted on the wings, really."

Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, denied local media reports on Wednesday that 130 planes had been returned, but has not commented further.

An Iraqi government official confirmed that the planes had been requested but would not give further details.