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Barely off the ground: Iraqi Air Force not ready to defend nation

BAGHDAD — If Iranian war planes crossed Iraq’s eastern border today, a fleet of Cessnas and a handful of Russian helicopters is all the Iraqi military would be able to muster in response. Instead, Iraq’s de facto air defense — the U.S. Air Force — would likely scramble fighters to meet the threat.

As the U.S. rapidly pulls out troops with an eye toward complete withdrawal by the end of next year, this uncomfortable fact remains: The Iraqi military is nowhere near ready to defend its borders.

“I’m not sure Iraqis will be able to assume all of the security responsibilities they need to by the time U.S. troops pull out,” said Omar al-Shahery, an Iraq expert at the RAND Corporation and a former deputy director general of defense at Iraq’s Ministry of Defense.

The Iraqi Army and Federal Police have improved greatly in recent years, to the point where they now are largely responsible for battling Iraq’s simmering insurgency. When it comes to defending the country’s borders, though, the military lacks the heavy weaponry and air force to fend off foreign rivals.

“To be honest, I can send my forces on a mission to secure the borders, but I can’t fight with 100 percent capability,” said Maj. Gen. Nasser Ahmed Ganam, who leads the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division in a region that shares a long border with Syria. “The reason is not my troops’ qualifications — my soldiers are brave and can fight, and my officers are very good — but I need equipment.”

Dangerous neighborhood

Iraq borders six countries, and has fought recent wars with two of them. Iraq’s long, porous border with Iran is still littered with land mines from the disastrous war between the two countries that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Turkey has dug-in tank positions several miles inside Iraq’s border to battle Kurdish separatists, and Turkey and Iran regularly target the separatists with bombs and mortars in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area. Last month, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard reportedly stormed separatist positions in Iraq’s Qandil mountains, killing 30 fighters.

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In December 2009, Iranian soldiers briefly occupied an oil field in southern Iraq, and Iran and Syria have long been accused of sending fighters and weapons into Iraq to bolster the insurgency.

Iraq’s leaders can do little more than shake their fists at their meddling neighbors.

The country’s most glaring military weakness is its Air Force, still in its infancy seven and a half years after the U.S. invasion and years away from having the fighters and bombers — not to mention pilots to fly them — to deter threats from the air. The first class of cadets at the new Air Force college arrived at the beginning of September and negotiations to buy F-16 jets are still in the early stages.

For now, the Air Force relies on a handful of C-130 transport planes, Cessnas and a new fleet of T-6 single-propeller planes being used to train the first crop of fighter pilots, under the instruction of U.S. airmen. The military also has a fleet of Russian Mi-17 helicopters, though they were recently transferred from the Air Force to the Army.

The picture doesn’t brighten much when it comes to ground defenses. Iraq has just one tank division, though the government is negotiating to buy more M1-A1 Abrams tanks, and it still has precious few armored vehicles.

“What’s the Iraqi Army got, PKCs, AK-47s, M4s, M16s?” said a senior Iraqi commander, who asked to remain anonymous because of a gag order from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. “These aren’t the kind of weapons to defend our borders. If you want to defend your borders, you need tanks, airplanes.”

Many of the vehicles the military does have sit dormant, awaiting parts from Baghdad.

Basic maintenance and repair for vehicles and equipment is a daily struggle for many units, as supplies are slow to travel from Baghdad to troops in the field — if the government has the parts at all. Littering many Iraqi bases are idle secondhand American Humvees awaiting something as simple as a tire.

Iraqi commanders are left to beg and borrow from their American counterparts.

“It’s not customer-based,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Terry Wolff, operations commander of U.S. Division-Center, said of Iraqi logistics. “Supplies aren’t based on what the soldiers, units need.”

When Iraq finally does get the complex weapons systems it needs, its troops will need to learn how to use and maintain them. It’s unclear under the current agreement that calls for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 whether the right people will be around to conduct such training.

‘Doesn’t make an army’

Even in the battle to contain an insurgency that launches regular attacks throughout the country, the Iraqi military is heavily reliant on the U.S. for some crucial facets, such as intelligence. American drones provide overhead images, and U.S.-paid sources still provide many of the tips. In Baghdad, the monthly stipend to pay sources is roughly equal to the amount the U.S. pays for one reliable tip, said Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, deputy commander of U.S. Division-Center, which includes Baghdad.

“You have to get money to pay your sources,” he said.

Despite this aid from their American counterparts, insurgents have recently ratcheted up the level of violence in Iraq, including spectacular attacks at high profile government and military targets in Baghdad that have called into question the Iraqi security forces’ abilities.

But U.S. commanders say they are satisfied with the readiness of Iraq’s troop at the unit level, and are now concentrating on helping Iraqis improve at the brigade and division levels, a daunting task in a military that still retains much of the grinding bureaucracy from Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-style defense forces.

“They got really good at the small unit level, but that doesn’t make an army,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the deputy commanding general for operations in Iraq. “What makes an army is the systems that lash all of this together.”

druzinh@estripes.osd.mil

weavert@pstripes.osd.mil

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