BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s air force commander said on Sunday he hoped Iran would return some of the scores of Iraqi fighter plans that flew there ahead of the Gulf War in 1991, but conceded many of them were probably beyond repair.
Lieutenant-General Kamal al-Barzanji is eyeing the aircraft, which were flown to Iran to escape destruction, as he slowly rebuilds Iraq’s shattered air force with American help.
“Until now we have not brought back any aircraft. This case belongs to the politicians,” he told a news briefing in Baghdad.
“But we hope we could bring back some of these aircraft to Iraq,” he said, adding that only a few would be salvageable.
Security information Web site GlobalSecurity.org estimates that half of the air force fled to Iran in 1991, just three years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, rather than confront Coalition planes.
Much of the rest of the air force was destroyed during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Iraq’s air force is slowly rising from the ashes of decades of war and sanctions that wiped out its fleet of combat aircraft, once reputed to be the world’s sixth-biggest.
At one stage the air force boasted 750 mainly Soviet- and French-built fighters, bombers and armed trainer aircraft, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
But Barzanji said there were now just 45 aircraft — for transport and reconnaissance — and helicopters. The air force first created in 1931 has been rebuilt from scratch since 2004.
Pilots from Saddam’s time form the backbone of efforts to create a new air fleet, although U.S. Brigadier-General Bob Allardice, commander of the air force transition team, said a program to train new aviators had begun.
“It is a complex process to train the air force while also fighting a counter-insurgency,” he told reporters.
As yet the new air force has no offensive capability, relying on U.S. attack helicopters and fighters to support ground troops.
U.S. commanders recognize, however, that needs to be addressed if they are to proceed with handing over security to Iraqi security forces to allow U.S troops to leave.
Asked when the air force would be in a position to conduct air combat operations, Kamal said: “That stage is close.”
At present the air force consists of C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, a variety of small fixed-wing aircraft for reconnaissance, and a number of Vietnam-era Huey and MI-17 Russian-made helicopters.