Dreams of the Iraqi Air Force vs. Needs of the Iraqi People

02/16/2011 11:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In "The Iraqi Phoenix Rises Again," I described how the once proud and powerful Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) -- at one time the sixth largest air force in the world -- was decimated as a result of both the 1991 "Persian Gulf War" (Operation Desert Storm) and Saddam Hussein's desperate concealing, disassembling and "stashing abroad" of its remaining aircraft before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While indeed decimated as a result of wars, a new IqAF started to rise again from its ashes -- just as the mythical Arabian Phoenix did -- ironically with the help of the same powers that destroyed it in the first place.

Already back in April 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced the first steps to form a new Iraqi Air Force with missions such as border patrol, urban security, aerial surveillance of oil and electrical infrastructure and various forms of transport.

In September 2006, operational control of the new IqAF was officially transferred to the Iraqi government.

Since then, an air force that started with zero aircraft and about 35 people in 2004 has grown to a force of more than 160 aircraft and helicopters -- including five C-130 transports, 15 Raytheon AT-6A Texan II training aircraft, several Seeker SB7L-360, CH2000 and King Air 350ER intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft -- and over 5,000 airmen.

Conspicuously absent from the IqAF's inventory are jet fighter aircraft -- the dream of any air force.

To fill this gap, the Iraqi government has been busy negotiating with both the U.S. and France for the possible purchase of F-16 fighter interceptors and upgraded Dassault Mirage F-1 fighters, respectively.

Back in March, 2010, Iraq submitted a request to the U.S. government for the purchase of 18 new F-16 fighter aircraft. Iraq would like to have 36 F-16s by 2020.

As recently as January of this year, it was reported that Iraq was "on the verge of signing a $13 billion deal with the Pentagon for advanced weapons systems, including Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter interceptors." The same report also said that France had stepped in with an offer to sell Iraq 18 upgraded Dassault Mirage F-1 fighters for $1 billion.

But not so fast.

I don't know if the saying "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach" strictly applies here, but the Associated Press reports that Iraq is delaying buying the new fighter jets citing the food needs of its people:

Iraq is delaying the purchase of 18 American fighter jets over budget problems and has decided to funnel the money into food for the poor instead


The AP reports goes on to explain that like several other countries in the Middle East in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt, Iraq is "under pressure to demonstrate its commitment to helping its own people."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said, according to the AP, "The F-16 contract has been postponed this year and the money has been diverted toward improving food rations for the poor."

Mohammed Khalil, a Kurdish MP and a member of parliament's finance committee said that, in a new draft of the budget, the earmarked money is being "reused to finance rations and social benefits."

In the wake of the Tunisia and Egypt demonstrations, Iraq has seen a small number of protests, with Iraqis complaining about rampant government corruption, electricity and water shortages, lack of other services and Iraqis demanding more jobs and improved standards of living.

Perhaps the saying should be, in this case: "The needs of the stomach are bigger than the needs of the IqAF."

We'll see.