KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Before U.S.-led forces invaded Baghdad in March 2003, Iraq’s once-capable air force never got off the ground.

Actually, some airplanes didn’t even get out of the ground.

Iraqi forces buried the few fighter aircraft left from the 1991 Persian Gulf War in the desert. American troops found the planes by accident in 2003.

Since the U.S. military dug up the first Russian-built MiG fighter from the sand, the resurrection of Iraq’s air force has been painstakingly slow.

A U.S. assessment team led by an Air Force general visited Iraq last week to identify areas where the service could help. It found that the Iraqis have a long way to go.

“One of the things I recognize is that this is just going to take time,” said Col. Mike Byrne, a member of the assessment team, by telephone from an undisclosed location in the Middle East. “There’s a lot of people that are going to expect things to happen very quickly, and they have to recognize that’s just not the case when you’re dealing with something of this magnitude.”

Rebuilding Iraq’s air force has become one of the U.S. Air Force’s top priorities in the country. The endeavor has proved to be an immense challenge because the Air Force is almost starting from scratch.

The aircraft Iraq has are not suited for Iraq’s dry and dusty environment, spare parts are scarce, and most of the country’s 360 pilots, navigators and mechanics are well over the age of 40 without many capable recruits to replace them.

Using aircraft donated from other nations, Iraqi airmen already provide limited airlift capability and help police oil pipelines.

Iraq would like to boost its helicopter fleet, develop a better light-attack capability to better protect the pipelines and improve its cargo and passenger airlift missions. However, for now, they must focus on making the best use of what limited aircraft they have, said Brig. Gen. Frank Padilla, assessment team leader.

While the U.S. Air Force is initially helping rebuild the Iraqi air force, the Iraqi force’s condition a decade from now will depend on how much resources the Iraqi government devotes to the fleet.

“When you have a country that has the challenges Iraq has right now, it’s all about priorities and how much of a priority the Iraqi government is willing to put into their air force and into their military in general,” Padilla said. “I’m confident the Iraqi air force will demonstrate that it is very able and that they are worth the investment.”

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