The Current Iraqi Air Force

Iraqi planes found in Serbia, but in pieces

By DUSAN STOJANOVIC for The Velvet Rocket

BELGRADE, Serbia — Iraqi officials, trying to trace what Saddam Hussein did with the country’s military assets, say they have discovered that 19 of the country’s Soviet-built warplanes were sent to the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s for servicing.

But Serbian officials say that, if Iraq plans to use those jets to rebuild its air force, their hopes will be dashed. Most are cannibalized, abandoned and useless.

The Iraqi Defense ministry says it discovered during a search of its files that the 19 fighters — Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s — were sent for maintenance in 1989 and got stuck in Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was a part, because of an embargo.

“The Serbian side has acknowledged the existence of these 19 fighter jets,” ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari told The Associated Press. “They are cooperative with us and promised to finish the maintenance in order to return the aircraft as soon as possible.”

He said an Iraqi delegation was heading to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to negotiate the return of the jets.

But Serbian Defense Ministry officials say only two or three of the jets are still “in one piece” — including one that was until recently stored in Belgrade’s aircraft museum.

All were sent in 1989 to a Yugoslav maintenance plant in Zagreb, in what is now Croatia, but never got the overhaul they needed, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they said the deal is a military secret.

In 1991, when the Croatian war for independence broke out, the jets were transported to Serbia in parts. They remained stranded after international sanctions were imposed on Iraq following its occupation of Kuwait in 1990.

The Serbian Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

Lt. Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the Multi-National Transition and Security Command-Iraq, said the MiGs would do little to boost the capability of the Air Force.

“The Iraqis would still have to train up pilots for the aircraft and establish a logistics system to maintain them,” Kolb said.

The U.S. would probably be unable to help with parts and maintenance, because the MiGs were designed by the former Soviet Union. Iraq has made a request to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. but that has not yet been approved.

The Iraqi Air Force was once considered the best in the Arab world. Founded in 1931, it battled the British in 1941 and Israel in 1948 and 1967.

Saddam, the former dictator, invested a huge portion of the country’s oil wealth in the Air Force, which was used to some effect during the 1980-88 war with Iran. At its zenith in the late 1980s, its inventory included nearly 750 combat aircraft, including Soviet MiGs and Sukhois and French Mirage fighters.

The Iraqi air force virtually ceased to exit in 1991: Most of its planes were flown to Iran to keep them from being shot down in the Gulf War; after the war, extensive no fly zones were imposed over Iraq by the Americans.

It was officially disbanded by the Americans in 2003, after U.S. troops ended Saddam Hussein’s regime,

U.S. officials are concerned about Iraq’s ability a set up and train a new air force by the time most American troops withdraw at the end of 2011.

Iraq’s financial crisis, caused by plummeting oil revenues, has slowed the process. The Air Force has no fighter jets to defend against possible incursions by countries such as Turkey and Israel.

Iraqi pilots are flying helicopters and smaller aircraft, such as Cessnas, which are primarily used for border surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Iraqi military officials have also shown interest in the purchase of small piston-engined training aircraft being developed in Serbia.

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