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.
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.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’.