Iraq gets Russian Sukhois to fight with ISIS

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BAGHDAD: Iraqi government officials said on Sunday that Russian experts had arrived in Iraq to help the army get 12 new Russian warplanes into the fight against Sunni extremists.

The move was at least an implicit rebuke to the United States, where concerns in Congress about the political viability of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government have stalled sales of advanced jets and helicopters to Iraq.

“In the coming three or four days the aircraft will be in service to support our forces in the fight” against the insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), said Gen Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi air force, referring to five SU-25 aircraft that were flown into Iraq aboard Russian cargo planes Saturday night and two more expected later Sunday. Ameen said that Russian military experts also had arrived to help set up the planes but that they would stay only a short time.

Last week president Barack Obama ordered 300 US military advisers into the country, and the Iranians have reportedly sent advisers from their Republican Guards’ Quds Force.

At least three US special forces teams are said to have deployed north of Baghdad in recent days, tasked with carrying out a survey of Iraqi forces to determine their state and needs.

This was the first report of Russian military aides in the country, although Ameen said they were experts, not advisers.

US officials, citing intelligence reports, have said that Iran has been sending surveillance drones over Iraq as well as supplying the government with military equipment and support.

On Thursday al-Maliki said the Iraqis, in an arrangement with the Russian ministry of defence, had ordered a dozen SU-25s, a ground-attack fighter jet useful for close air support operations.

“They are coming very fast,” Ameen said in a telephone interview, “because we need them in this conflict against the terrorists as soon as possible.” He said the Russians would leave within around three days after the aircraft were ready for service. The first batch of Russian fighter jets arrived in Baghdad on Saturday to help Iraqi forces battle Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fighters in the country’s north. (Reuters photo)

The Iraqi military used SU-25 jets extensively during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, but they have not been used in Iraq since 2002 or earlier.

Still, Ameen said they would soon see action again.

Iraqi forces carried out repeated airstrikes, mostly using helicopters, on insurgent targets throughout the city on Sunday for the fourth day in a row, witnesses said.

“We have pilots who have long experience in this plane and of course we have the help of the Russian friends and the experts who came with these aircraft to prepare them,” he said. “This will produce a very strong punishment against the terrorists in the coming days.”

Sunni jihadi fighters were reported Sunday to have stalled a government offensive to retake the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. Insurgents had apparently regained control of key government buildings in the center of Tikrit, according to witnesses who reported seeing the black flag of ISIS flying over many important buildings. The day before, Iraqi flags had been hoisted on many of them, as Iraqi troops carried out a ground assault after a three-daylong operation intended to take the city and roll back the insurgents’ advance toward Baghdad.

The Iraqi army remained in control of roads leading into Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and a longtime stronghold of Sunni hardliners, about 100 miles north of Baghdad — as well as the campus of Salahuddin University in Tikrit and a military base, Camp Speicher, on the outskirts of the city.

The military’s advance, supported by tanks and helicopter gunships, was hampered by a large number of bombs planted along the roads, a common tactic of the insurgents.

According to a security official in Tikrit, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of government policy, ISIS fighters had kidnapped six relatives of Maj Gen Jumaa al-Jabouri, deputy commander of Iraqi military operations in Salahuddin province, holding them hostage and destroying their homes in the eastern part of the city.

What appeared to be a jumbo Russian transport aircraft, from which the SU-25 warplanes were unloaded, was shown Saturday night on Iraqiya, the state television network at what was believed to be an air base in Taji, a short distance north of Baghdad.

The new aircraft “will increase and support the strength and capability of the Iraqi air forces to eliminate terrorism,” a statement issued by the Iraqi ministry of defence said.

The Iraqis have asked the United States for help in buying aircraft such as F-16s and advanced helicopter gunships, but Congress has been reluctant to approve such sales until al-Maliki forms a government that is more inclusive of Sunni and Kurdish leaders.

The Iraqi air force currently has only two propeller-driven Cessna aircraft equipped to fire guided Hellfire missiles, which the Iraqis ran out of last week. Over the past three days, 75 new Hellfires were delivered to Iraq by the US government.

The air force also had about 180 helicopters, many of them gunships, but six of those were destroyed in the insurgents’ attack on Mosul, and another 60 were damaged.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that Iran was prepared to return some of the Iraqi warplanes that Saddam Hussein flew to Iran in 1991 to escape US destruction. Those included 24 French F1 Mirage fighters, and 80 Russian jets.

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