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Iraq Air Force Needs More Than New Coat Of Paint

Al-Muthana Air Force Base, Iraq. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Simon Ostrovsky
Al-Muthana, Iraq (AFP) Apr 25, 2006
Home to hundreds of aircraft under Saddam Hussein's ousted regime, the dusty Al-Muthana air base outside the Iraqi capital today hosts just three lonely cargo planes.

After obliterating Saddam's formidable air force in the 1991 Gulf war and the invasion of 2003, US forces say they are now putting the pieces back together in the hope that Iraqis will eventually take over for the coalition.

"There were no usable structures, now you can see we have a fully functioning air force base," said US Air Force Colonel Steven Gregorcyk, one of a team of US trainers working at the base.

The Iraqi air force totaled more than 1,000 aircraft before the 1991 Gulf war, according to Iraqi figures.

Coalition bombing knocked that figure down to around 300 in 1991 and all but a handful of those remaining aircraft were destroyed in the 2003 invasion.

The result has been that, as the Iraqi air force celebrated its 75th anniversary Sunday, it boasted barely 50 planes and helicopters, most of them donated since the invasion by members of the US-led coalition.

And while pressure has been mounting on the administration of US President George W. Bush to set a date for a troop pullout, the Iraqi air force is far from ready to fend for itself.

"We're just here to give them a certain amount of training so we can go back home," the chief US advisor on the base, Colonel Richard Haddad, said hopefully.

The fledgling new air force has flown only a limited number of missions so far, including cargo flights, a humanitarian operation, and surveillance missions.

One surveillance mission last year proved fatal in 2005 when the Comp Air aircraft crashed in unexplained circumstances in the restive province of Diyala northeast of the capital, killing five airmen, four of them American.

Missions that involve firing on enemy targets are all carried out by coalition forces for the simple reason that the Iraqi air force has no fighters of its own.

Iraq's air force commander General Kamal Al-Barazenchi told AFP his current priority was to get a hold of more reconnaissance planes, helicopters, and transport aircraft to improve logistical support to ground forces.

"It's a step-by-step plan," he said, adding that there were no immediate plans to acquire fighter planes.

Washington hopes Muthana, into which the Pentagon has poured 40 million dollars to give it a single hangar and a handful of administrative buildings, "will become the benchmark for other Iraqi air force bases," Haddad said.

The United States has spent a total of 53.2 million dollars on the Iraqi air force so far, the military said.

The US air force donated three C-130 propeller-driven cargo planes built in the 1960s but efforts by the defense ministry to procure warplanes on its own have hit snags.

The ministry planned to buy 32 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters through a Polish arms dealer recently but only eight were delivered after Iraqi officials discovered that the other 24 were 27 years old and unserviceable, Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi told AFP.

"Our technicians went to Russia to inspect them and they were shown to be junk," Dulaimi said of the helicopters, part of what was to be a 300-million-dollar deal in February.

In its heyday Saddam's air force boasted Russian MiG-21 and MiG-25 fighters, Sukhoi fighter-bombers, and French Mirage interceptors.

Ahead of the 1991 Gulf war, the then president had many of the aircraft flown to neighbouring Iran to save them from destruction in the anticipated US-led bombardment.

They had yet to be returned by Iraq's former foe when the region's next conflict rolled around in 2003.

"We will never get those planes back," said Muthana's commander whimsically. Like other Iraqi personnel at the base, he asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by insurgents.

"During Saddam's regime we had a big Iraqi air force, but the system had many deficiencies. Now the air force is still small, but it will grow," the commander said.

Not surprisingly, the main problem the Iraqi air force faces is finding the money for new equipment.

Defense officials said they hoped their allies would step in to provide them with the expensive machinery of war.

"An air force is very costly. We hope our friends and partners will help us with this," Dulaimi said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

Related Links

Lessons From Iraq Are Critical To Future Planning
Washington (UPI) Apr 25, 2006
As recognition of the U.S. defeat in Iraq spreads, so also does the process of sweeping up the debris. Both civilian observers and a few voices inside the military have begun the "lessons learned" business, trying to figure out what led to our defeat so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. That is the homage we owe to this war's dead and wounded. To the degree we do learn important lessons, they will not have suffered in vain, even though we lost the war.

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