(See EXTRA for more on turmoil in Iraq. Updates with analyst’s comment in 12th paragraph.)
June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Russian military advisers helped to prepare Iraq’s air force to use five newly delivered combat planes in its campaign to recapture areas of the country’s north that fell to an al-Qaeda breakaway.
The used Russian Sukhoi combat aircraft arrived in Iraq as government ground forces, backed by helicopter gunships, pressed their offensive to drive Sunni fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from the northern city of Tikrit. Al-Mada Press reported late yesterday that government forces recaptured Ouja village, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, south of Tikrit.
The Iraqi government turned to Russia to bolster its air capabilities, saying U.S. fighter jets were taking too long to be delivered. Russian advisers who arrived in Iraq are helping to put the “logistical procedures in place,” and the aircraft will enter service within three to four days, air force commander General Anwar Ameen said yesterday on state-run Iraqiya TV.
“One day after the Russian deputy foreign minister said that Moscow would not stand by idly, the Kremlin delivered the first of 25 Sukhoi fighter jets to Iraq,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“The delivery is to illustrate the Kremlin’s quick action to help the Iraqi government fight the opposition,” Karasik said. “The move is also part of guaranteeing that any future government in Baghdad will be tied to Moscow for military equipment. It is smart business as usual.”
The Pentagon has said it maintained all along that the first F-16 aircraft would be handed over in the fall.
The region’s stock markets and global energy markets have been roiled by the possibility that ISIL’s gains may reignite a sectarian civil war in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ second-largest producer.
Governments critical of the Shiite-led regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, including the U.S., say its sidelining of the Sunni minority fueled alienation that helped ISIL press its advance. They’ve urged Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government, saying military might by itself won’t resolve the crisis.
While the air force readied the latest addition to its arsenal, a government official claimed army gains in Tikrit, where ground forces have embarked on their first concerted effort to repel ISIL. Troops cleared Tikrit University of ISIL militants, killing 70 fighters, Qassem Ata, an Iraqi security spokesman, said at a news conference yesterday. The fall of Ouja was reported late in the day.
Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province about 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of two major cities ISIL has captured. The first, Mosul, fell on June 10 as army forces melted away in the face of ISIL militants, three years after the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq.
With air strikes and ground forces, the army is close to ousting militants from Tikrit, Jawad Al-Bolani, a security official, said in a phone interview yesterday from an operations command center in Salahuddin. Al-Bolani, a former interior ministry official assigned to direct and assist the troops, said troops have support from U.S. intelligence to bolster “our security capabilities.”
Sustained air operations by the Iraqi military could take at least several weeks to mount because the Iraqis gave up their Russian aircraft in 1991 and will need training, said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Even so, the government may be able to conduct a few symbolic flights in a matter of days that would provide psychological advantage, he said.
“If you get planes in the sky, it gives you a lot more credibility than you really deserve,” Cordesman said in an interview.
Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime that ISIL seeks to oust, also benefits by coming to Iraq’s aid quickly and contrasting its deliveries’ with the U.S., he said.
As the Iraqi government spoke of progress on the battlefield, ISIL declared itself an Islamic caliphate in areas of Iraq and Syria it controls. On its Twitter account, it renamed itself “Islamic State” and named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader, or emir, of the state.
U.S. President Barack Obama, while agreeing to send military advisers to help the Iraqi army fight ISIL, has refrained from ordering air strikes, putting the onus on Iraqi leaders to add a political component to resolving the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad last week to urge the formation of a broad-based coalition.
The conflict in Syria -- and perhaps now in Iraq -- could create a direct security threat to the U.S. as European sympathizers fighting with ISIL become “battle hardened,” Obama said in an interview broadcast today on ABC’s “This Week.”
“Then they come back,” he said. “They’ve got European passports. They don’t need a visa to get into the United States.”
“Special Forces are going to have a role,” Obama said. “And there are going to be times where we take strikes against organizations that could do us harm.”
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington.