Will Iraq’s new F-16’s police the ‘One Iraq’ policy?

by Paul Iddon.

The Iraqi government is really insistent that if any armed groups in the country want guns — the Kurds, mainly — they must go through Baghdad first. Now Iraq is getting the means to enforce that policy through its new F-16 fighter jets. Try to land a cargo plane in Iraqi Kurdistan without asking, and Iraq will have the means to intercept you … and even shoot you down.

It doesn’t mean Baghdad will do that, at least not for now. But overflights and arms shipments through Iraqi territory has been a recurring issue for years, owing to the fact that Iraq had practically no air force or control over its air space. That’s beginning to change.

F-16 allotted to Iraqi Air Force in Tucson Arizona circa December 2014 (Photo: U.S. Air Force).

F-16 allotted to Iraqi Air Force in Tucson Arizona circa December 2014 (Photo: U.S. Air Force).

Let’s go back to early 2013. At the time, the United States alleged that Iran was directly propping up the Syrian regime by directly flying weapons through Iraqi air space. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broached this contentious issue with Iraq’s then president Nouri Al Maliki, but to no avail. Maliki insisted that the flights were for humanitarian purposes.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, believed that there were simply too many flights for that to have been the case. Maliki sought to quell those fears by inspecting a few Iranian planes which revealed nothing more than humanitarian and medical supplies bound for Syria, just as Tehran had claimed.

That was little over a year after the American withdrawal and the end of the costly and highly unpopular Iraq War. In retrospect, Kerry’s visit aptly demonstrated just how diminished Washington’s leverage over Baghdad — if it ever really had any to begin with — had become. Especially since Maliki didn’t want to step on the toes of his important Iranian neighbor with which his government maintained cordial relations and ties.

Shortly after Kerry’s visit to Baghdad, Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, proposed that Washington and Baghdad could solve the overflights issue by directly connecting it to another issue — Washington’s delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Baghdad.

Faily pointed out that Iraq had no interceptors to stop Iranian overflights. Except for a few helicopters and Cessna Caravan planes modified to fire Hellfire missiles, Iraq lacked an air force. On the other hand, F-16s would give Iraq the ability to intercept any planes violating or traversing across its sovereign air space.

Iraq’s Kurds were a bit nervous about Baghdad receiving such jets. Indeed, Maliki once reportedly said that if he ever used the Iraqi army against Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomous region, it would only be after the air force took delivery of those fighter-bombers.

Maliki has since stepped down from power and the threat posed by the terror organization called “Islamic State” (IS) has become the foremost preoccupation on the minds of most policymakers in Baghdad, Erbil and Washington. Similarly, the delivery of what will eventually amount to a package of 36 F-16 fighter jets to Iraq’s air force has been more recently discussed in light of their use against IS – not to prevent any Iranian overflights of Iraqi air space or to crush Kurdish independence.

Iraqi Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga soldier (Photo by Claus Weinberg).

Iraqi Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga soldier (Photo by Claus Weinberg).

However, these jets could be used to police the skies in order to prevent other arms shipments heading directly to Iraqi Kurdistan.

As per the ‘One Iraq’ policy upheld by the United States, any arms shipments sold or donated to Iraq must go through the federal government in Baghdad, even if intended for use by the Kurds in the north. By upholding this quite cumbersome and ponderous bureaucracy, Washington is in turn demonstrating that it supports a unified Iraqi nation-state.

Then IS exploded onto the scene and directly threatened Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Beginning in late 2014, Erbil has received direct arms shipments from Germany and Iran — the latter which is resolutely dedicated to upholding Baghdad’s authority and is opposed to Iraqi Kurdish independence and statehood. The pressing nature of the threat from IS necessitated direct delivery. Similarly, Berlin sent assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to help Erbil stave off attacks.

Now that Erbil is no longer at risk of falling, Baghdad is less likely to tolerate such deliveries. In recent months, planes from Canada and Sweden at Baghdad International Airport were prevented from heading on to Erbil since they were reportedly carrying small arms.

In late October 2015, the U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford was denied permission from landing in Erbil during his trip to Iraq, ostensibly because he was traveling in a C-17 cargo plane. It was also unusual for a U.S. official to land first in Erbil rather than in Baghdad. He was later quoted saying that one shouldn’t look too much into the itinerary, and he proposed that all the disparate armed groups fighting IS should be placed under one command.

Nevertheless, that incident demonstrated just how touchy Baghdad is about the potential of any cargo plane of a friendly nation to carry arms to Erbil directly. And Iraq is acquiring the means to enforce this prohibition if it feels the need.

Iraqi F-16s have solely flown bombing missions to date. These jets have fairly basic air-to-air and air-to-ground strike capabilities, and would certainly be no match against the F-16s the United States has sold to nearby Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Not that Baghdad will likely shoot down any plane which attempts to contravene the ‘One Iraq’ policy.

But it will surely be able to readily intercept one. And this comes at a time when Baghdad is getting more strict about other countries not adhering to the parameters of ‘One Iraq’.

This entry was posted in English, International, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Security Policy.

5 Responses to Will Iraq’s new F-16’s police the ‘One Iraq’ policy?

  1. Talk of the devil, and he is bound to appear!

    Iraqi officials temporarily seized a military aircraft carrying weapons for Canadian special forces in Kurdistan. Iraq said they held the Canadian Forces Hercules carrying supplies into Kurdistan for four days. Some Iraqis are concerned that the Kurds will use the weapons they receive from the US-led coalition to eventually break away.

    Source: George Allison, “Iraq seizes Canadian Forces aircraft“, UK Defence Journal, 20.11.2015.

  2. And again: Karzan Sabah Hawrami, “Iraq Prevents Swedish Plane From Delivering Weapons to Kurdistan“, Basnews, 25.11.2015.

  3. Did you know that according to Hürriyet the Turkish Armed Forces trained Peshmerga soldiers in Northern Iraq? According to the Turkish Army, more than 2,500 Peshmerga, including high-ranking officers, have attended the their training.

    But not only that … Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, signed a deal for a permanent Turkish base in Mosul during the latter’s visit to northern Iraq on November 4, 2015.

    Consequently, on December 4, 2015, at least 150 Turkish soldiers, accompanied by 20-25 tanks, were deployed to the area by land. A statement from the Iraqi prime minister’s media office confirmed that Turkish troops numbering “around one armed battalion with a number of tanks and cannons” had entered its territory near Mosul without request or permission from Baghdad authorities. It called on the forces to leave immediately. In a separate statement flashed on state TV, the Iraqi foreign ministry called the Turkish activity “an incursion” and rejected any military operation that was not coordinated with the federal government.

    In Washington, two U.S. defense officials said that the United States was aware of Turkey’s deployment of hundreds of Turkish soldiers to northern Iraq but that the move is not part of the U.S.-led coalition’s activities.

    Source:Turkish military to have a base in Iraq’s Mosul“, Hürriyet Daily News, 05.12.2015.


  4. hayder says:

    i fear there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the iraqi kurdish situation in the west.

    Since 1970 Iraq has given kurdistan both autonomy and the right to peacefully secede if they so wish.

    iraq has not officially opposed kurdish independence for over 46 years now! Yet it seems almost no one in the west is aware of this because the narrative of the conflict has always been seen through pro-kurdish point of view in the western media.

    the only “conflict” that iraq and kurdistan have are over areas which are not part of kurdistan which the kurds want to annex from iraq (areas which have at least 45% non-kurdish population).

    In fact even Erbil (as its name implies) is historically an Assyrian / Semitic city and till now AinKawa is the Christian town within it. Over the past century, kurds have moved in and became majority of course… and iraq never opposed that or tried to “reverse or ethnic cleanse” it… in fact right up to the 1940s and 1950s the only ethnic cleansing was by Kurds against Christians in the North of Iraq (and of course earlier against the Assyrians and Armenians in what has now become the Kurdish region of Turkey.

    The lack of holistic understanding of the complex nature of the Region in the west and the binary black-white view reinforced over decades of misinformation sadly results in such flawed analysis.

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