Iraq takes delivery of F-16 fighter jets from US
BAGHDAD - Iraq received four F-16 fighter jets from the United States in July and immediately put them to service as part of a US-led air campaign to rid the country and neighbouring Syria of the Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Iraqi lawmaker Salim Shawki said the aeroplanes, part of a deal that involves 36 aircraft but had been delayed for several years, will bolster Iraqi air defences and allow Iraq to be involved in US-led aerial attacks on ISIS strongholds.
“Iraqi jets are now flying sorties for the first time as part of the international coalition against Daesh,” Shawki told The Arab Weekly, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Our air defences will be bolstered when all the aircraft arrive in Iraq.”
Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy to the coalition against ISIS, confirmed the delivery on Twitter, writing July 13th, “After years of preparation and training in the US, Iraqi pilots today landed the first squadron of Iraqi F-16s in Iraq.”
That day Iraq’s television showed footage of Iraqi pilots landing the planes at Joint Base Balad, about 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Iraq ordered 36 of the fighter aircraft, each valued at $65 million, but deliveries were delayed because of what Washington described as security concerns that ISIS could overrun Balad and capture the advanced fighter aircraft.
However, Iraqi lawmakers accused Washington of deliberately withholding the deliveries, which were to start right away, and be completed within two years, after the deal was brokered in 2009. Consequently, the Iraqi government began to shop around for advanced assault aircraft from Russia, China and Iran.
Hakem Zamli, a lawmaker who presides over parliament’s Security and Defence Committee, rebuked the United States.“First, the delivery was supposed to take place by 2011, then it was delayed until 2013 and then to 2014 and eventually 2015,” Zamli said, describing the delay as a “violation of the terms of the deal”.
Despite Iraqi threats to suspend the deal with the United States, its military favoured the American F-16s instead of the Russian and French fighters that made up the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam Hussein.
From 2008 Iraq had aimed to spend more than $10 billion on advanced armoured vehicles, strengthening its military supply chain, building bases and infrastructure for its army and purchasing advanced scout helicopters. However, budget shortfalls have stretched out those buys.
Iraq is keen to obtain the armed scout helicopters, which would be a significant step because its air force, which was once one of the strongest in the region, has been reduced to a few dozen aeroplanes and helicopters, with no front-line fighters or attack helicopters with precision munitions.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States would help the Iraqi government keep the F-16s out of ISIS’s hands.
“Of course we’re concerned about the security situation on the ground, and not just with respect to aircraft, but any other equipment that could be damaged,” he said in a mid-July briefing.
“F-16 jets are a little bit different,” Kirby added, noting that ISIS “has no air force and has no capability or ability to fly advanced fighter aircraft”.
He dismissed the suggestion that the advanced jets could be used against other groups, a point about which Iraq’s Kurdish population had voiced concern.