Iraq seeks return of 19 MiG fighters from Serbia

(Adds Serbian reaction, paragraphs 7-10)

BAGHDAD, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Iraq is negotiating the return of 19 fighter jets that Saddam Hussein's regime sent to Serbia for servicing at the end of the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi Defence Ministry said.

A delegation had gone to Serbia to start the process and to "recover the money misspent by the former Iraqi regime", the ministry said in a weekend statement.

Sanctions slapped on Iraq because of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 would have made it impossible to bring the MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters back while he was in power.

"We discussed the matter with the Serbian side about the possibility of repairing these aircraft and returning them to service," the ministry said. "Everyone knows our need for fighter jets."

Two of the jets were ready for "immediate use", the statement said, and a preliminary agreement had been reached with the Serbian government to repair the others and send them back.

The statement did not say when the existence of the fighters had come to light.

During his visit to Iraq earlier this month, Serbia's Defence Minister Dragan Sutanovac told Iraqi officials about the existence of the jets, said a senior Serbian defence official who did not want to be quoted by name.

"None are in flyable condition, they are dismantled and in crates. Only one MiG 23 that was displayed in (Belgrade's) air force museum is whole," he said.

The source said that Serbia "would gladly hand over Iraqi MiG's to its owners as we have no use for them."

Serbia is anxious to work with Iraq, which has long been a trade partner. Last week Sutanovac announced that Serbia's Yugoimport SDPR state-operated arms exporter agreed to sell $100 million-worth weapons and military equipment to Iraq.

Iraq wants to rebuild its once-strong air force as it seeks to reconstruct a military devastated by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and a decision by Iraq's U.S. administrators to disband Iraqi forces in the aftermath.

The country announced in March that it wanted to buy a squadron of 18 Lockheed Martin Corp


F-16 fighter aircraft. (Reporting by Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Charles Dick)