NEW AL-MUTHANNA AIR BASE, Iraq – NEW AL-MUTHANNA AIR BASE, Iraq (AP) — An Iraqi Air Force C-130 Hercules touches down at a base west of Baghdad as Iraqi pilots and their American instructors watch from the runway — a graceful landing for the bulky four-turboprop airlifter, one of several now owned by Iraq.
But the new craft and the new generation of pilots and personnel at the nascent Iraqi air force's sprawling headquarters is still a far cry from the mighty air power Saddam Hussein once fielded. And as U.S. troops prepare for a complete pullout by the end of 2011, there is one domain where Iraq will not be able to claim full control anytime soon — its skies.
American warplanes have played a significant role in Iraq's struggle with insurgents in the past seven years, including reconnaissance and strikes on militant targets. Iraq wants to build its forces up not only to fulfill that mission, but also to serve as a deterrent in any possible scenario, ranging from Israeli overflights targeting Iranian nuclear sites to incursions by Iran.
"Iraq is a sovereign country but let us be frank, we don't have the combat or jet fighters or intercepting planes or air defense systems," Iraqi Air Force commander, Staff Lt. Gen. Anwer Hamad Amen Ahmed, said in an interview. "We are still far from an air force's full potential. We will need the U.S. long after 2011."
Iraq announced in March 2009 that it wants to purchase a squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp. But the potentially multibillion dollar deal is still going through the lengthy process of approval from the U.S. Defense and State departments, and Iraq's financial crisis, caused by plummeting oil revenues, will likely further slow the process.
Under the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, the Americans' departure by the end of 2011 in theory spells the end of the U.S. Air Force's involvement here. But both Iraqi and American officers are increasingly talking about a "long-term partnership" in air operations that would stretch beyond that date.
With the help of the U.S., Iraq has worked since 2005 to rebuild its air force, starting from scratch and switching from Saddam's Soviet-era weaponry to American know-how.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Scott Hanson, commander of the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing and head of the Iraqi training and advisory mission, said the push has gathered momentum as U.S. draws down.
"It's not just pilot training, everything you need for an air force, we teach them," Hanson said at the base. "Whether its maintenance, logistics, communications, crash and fire rescue, air traffic control — all the business of air power."
Today, Iraqi pilots fly Mi-17 helicopters and smaller aircraft, such as Cessnas, mostly for border surveillance and intelligence gathering. The U.S. donated three C-130s in 2005, and three Beech 350 Super King Air light planes arrived in April 2009.
Single-engined, two-seat T6 Texan propeller planes are in use for basic pilot training at the Iraqi Air Force Academy, which in December opened its doors in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown north of Baghdad.
Hanson showed The Associated Press charts of Iraqi air force accomplishments to date: 44 training aircraft, 36 transport, 19 surveillance and reconnaissance and 3 ground attack planes. With about 285 sorties a week, the planes had an extra 134 overflights on election day March 7, aimed at boosting Iraqi voters' confidence.
"They see the Iraqi flag on the planes, they know it's their air force," said Hanson.
So far, 57 new pilots have graduated, and 99 others are in training. The pilots are mostly young cadets but also some drawn from the Saddam-era force.
Iraq's air force was once considered the best in the Arab world. Founded in 1931, it fought in numerous Mideast conflicts, battling the British in 1941 and Israel in 1948 and 1967.
Saddam invested a huge portion of the country's oil wealth to equip it, and during the 1980-88 war with Iran, it bombed airfields in Tehran and other major Iranian cities. At its peak in late 1980s, it had nearly 750 combat aircraft, including Soviet MiGs and Sukhois and French Mirage fighters; 40,000 men and 24 operating bases.
But the 1991 Gulf War that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait devastated its ranks. Hundreds of planes either fled to neighboring Iran, never to return or were destroyed in the fighting. After the war, extensive no-fly zones were imposed over Iraq, and subsequent U.N. sanctions only made things worse. Hundreds of planes were cannibalized for spare parts, and by 2002 only 100 airworthy jets remained in service.
After the 2003 invasion, U.S. teams found several intact but unflyable fighter jets buried beneath the sand.
For some Saddam-era pilots, rebuilding the air force is a step in restoring some of its past glory.
"We learned a lot from our American friends, they've given us a lot," said Lt. Col. Ahmed Mutashar after landing his Mi-17 helicopter in Taji, north of Baghdad, during a combat exercise in late March. "But we need more."