Thursday, March 09, 2006

Fear Flies High At New Iraq Air Force's First Base

By Nick Olivari
Reuters
March 8, 2006

BAGHDAD - There are no fighter jets and the officers are too frightened to reveal their identities, but Iraq's new air force finally has its own field.

Nestled deep inside the massive U.S. military complex which surrounds Baghdad International Airport, Muthana airfield comprises one runway, a giant hangar, some pilots, aircraft and ground crew from Iraq's fledgling air force.

But the air wing of a national armed force upon which the future stability of Iraq and the prospects for a possible U.S. troop pullout rests is small and has no fighting capability.

Information about it is specific and sparing.

The pilots of 23 Squadron based at Muthana will be available to fly any of Iraq's three C-130 planes or its 30 helicopters on transport or observation missions. Officers said the squadron is one of five air force units, but said the other four had not yet been designated bases.

Iraq's fighter planes have been missing since before the first Gulf War in 1991, when they were spirited away to Iran to avoid destruction by a U.S.-led coalition which kicked Saddam's invasion forces out of Kuwait. Tehran never sent them back.

Fear appeared to be the main theme on the minds of Muthana's officers and ground crew. They are frightened their national service will endanger their families in a country beset by a bloody insurgency and growing tit-for-tat violence between Iraq's two predominant Muslim sects that has killed hundreds.

"We are afraid for our families, there is no one to protect them," said 23 Squadron leader, calling himself only Col. Samir.

A flight instructor under his command who would only give his name as Lt. Col. Jaber agreed and wondered what protection junior officers could rely upon when assassins were able to shoot dead an Iraqi Army division commander on Monday.

"They kidnap our children, they are trying to kill us," Jaber said. "If you take our names or pictures, we have to leave Iraq or they will kill us."

The Muthana base used to be a preserve of the forces which protected Saddam's palaces in Baghdad. It was destroyed in the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, but has been rebuilt over the last year.

Officers of 23 Squadron admit the available aircraft are a far cry from the 850 fighter craft, 50 fixed wing transport aircraft and more than 1,000 helicopters the Iraqi air force deployed at its peak under Saddam.

The few aircraft on the runway bring a smile to the officers and men at Muthana, many of whom served in the old days under Saddam. Iraq's armed forces were disbanded after the 2003 invasion and the pilots are keen to get back to flying.

But a nearby explosion shortly before Muthana's ribbon cutting ceremony reminds everyone of the enormous task ahead and conversations with journalists are suddenly cut short.

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