Iraq’s New F-16s

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel isn’t as anxious about Iraq’s new fighter jets as it is anxious to get a hold of some new ones for itself. Over the last few years, Israel’s been eager to be the first country to buy the newly developed F-35 Lightning jet fighter – a stealth jet. It placed its first order last year for 20 of them at a price tag in the billions of dollars.   Once Israel gets them delivered – maybe as early as 2015 – Israel will have, indisputably, the most powerful air force in the Middle East by a much greater margin than it has now.  So why make any sort of fuss over Iraqi planes which are actually an older model? Iraq has no air force of comparison right now anyway.

Israel might want to cover Iraqi skies on its way to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. It might also be anxious that those planes could end up aimed at Israel eventually, the beginning of a reconstituted Iraqi military that was once Israel’s greatest threat.

Saddam’s Iraq

Saddam Hussein posed the most significant military threat to Israel when he was in power.  He kept the Jewish state on its toes.  Even before Saddam, Iraq was viscerally opposed to Israel.  Iraqi Jews suffered Iraqi pogroms and expulsions before, during and after the Israeli War of Independence.  Arab nationalism particularly in Iraq took an emotional, near-psychotic approach to Zionism and Israel’s existence.  Iraq’s army was part of the Arab coalition in 1948.  Iraq’s army actually occupied the northern West Bank and Sh’khem/Nablus.  In 1973, Iraqi tanks entered the Yom Kippur War and fought Israel’s.  Israel’s strategy in the West Bank until 2003 was to defend against an Iraqi invasion.  In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to destroy its nuclear facilities.  A rebuilt Iraq could one day be hostile – again – to Israel.

Arab Air Forces

Last year, a deal that gave Saudi Arabia a new fleet of F-15s caused the same sort of headlines. Saudi Arabia is a much more capable country than Iraq, buying a super package of military machines for over $60 billion including jets and helicopters. That deal increased pressure on Israel to pay the cash for the stealth jets, and the pressure on the United States to get the deal done and deliver the weapons to Israel.  Other Arab countries have sophisticated abilities also, like the United Arab Emirates (80 F-16s & 30 French Mirages) and Bahrain (33 F-16s & 16 Northrops).

Iraq is getting 36 F-16s, apparently as strong and capable as the planes Israel’s air force uses.  That could mean an even fight in the skies if the planes were to tango, like they might if Israel tried to hit Iran.  Iraq did buy sophisticated radar systems just last month.  But would Iraq actually get into a dog fight with the much more experienced and massive Israeli Air Force?  The US thinks the new planes can handle Syrian or Iranian jets while not standing a chance with Israel’s.  But is the Iraqi Air Force really going to be standing in the way of Syria’s or Iran’s?

Iraq & Iran

Iraq will eventually emerge from its internal problems. So the concern about the planes is more on the distant future, when Iraq might consider using them for offense. But this isn’t Saddam’s country. Ruled now by Arab Shi’ite Muslims, the conflict between Shi’ite Iran and the Arab World has put Iraq into a neutral position.  Given that, Iraq could play a moderating role, or at least stay as far away from conflict as possible.

The idea Iraq might be neutral is as much wishful thinking as a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The Iraqi government and military have strong, intimate ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  Iraq’s political and religious elite spent decades of exile in Iran both in the seminaries and in the trenches against Saddam Hussein.  Iran offered asylum to the major Shi’ite religious families the Hakims and the Sadrs, both of whom have major representation in the big Shi’ite political parties in Iraq.

Iran’s influence has grown since the US military left Iraq last year.  How much is unclear, but whatever amount is enough to concern Israel’s strategists.  Now with Syria on the brink of collapse, Iran might want to replace its top Arab ally with a new one with more potential, far more assets and a steadier cultural connection (Shi’ite Islam).

This is all a brief overview of things.  But it’s important to pay attention to Iraq in the years to come and especially the opportunities weapons and technology companies will get to rebuild Iraq’s depleted military.  The Iraqi Air Force might only be one facet of the military, but it’s the most lucrative and packs the biggest hypothetical threat from a rival Iraq hostile to Israel.

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