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Remembering Desert Storm and the Gulf War(s) Odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, Part 2

In part two of his article on the Iraqi Air Force and the Gulf Wars, Michael Brill examines the long-term consequences of Saddam Hussein's decision to transport a portion of his air force to Iran in 1991.

The first part of this article investigated one of the 1990-1991 Gulf War’s stranger episodes: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s seemingly impulsive and desperate decision to order over a hundred of the Iraqi Air Force’s best warplanes to Iran for safekeeping.

In light of the devastating aerial bombardment that Iraq was subjected to during the first weeks of Operation Desert Storm, prior to the coalition ground war to evict occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saddam hoped to preserve his air and naval forces for such a later stage in the conflict. His decision appeared all the stranger in that Iran and Iraq had waged a brutal eight year-long war following Iraq’s invasion in September 1980. The waves of Iraqi warplanes arriving in Iran sparked initial fears inside the US-led coalition and among some observers of a secret deal or rapprochement between the regimes of Saddam and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, when neither proved to be the case, the exact circumstances and motivations behind Saddam’s decision remained mysterious.

The first part of this article drew on contemporary news coverage, memoirs of two notable participants from the Iranian and Iraqi sides, and digitized copies of records from Saddam’s regime seized by the US military in the 2003 War. In addition to shedding new light on the episode, Iraqi intelligence reports document the integration of the Iraqi warplanes into the Iranian military in the 1990-1991 Gulf War’s aftermath. Throughout the 1990s, the Iranians rebuffed Iraqi calls to return the aircraft. As the remainder of Iraq’s Air Force fell into disrepair under United Nations Security Council sanctions and largely grounded by no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, the 2003 War would eventually give rise to circumstances compelling Iran to return many of Iraq’s old warplanes. As will be seen, the 2003 War also had grave consequences for the airmen who comprised the Iraqi Air Force during the time of Saddam’s regime.

Settling Scores of the Iran-Iraq War

The chaos following the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq provided an ideal environment for a seemingly endless cycle of revenge. The destruction of Saddam’s regime also eliminated Iran’s principal adversary, along with removing the last barrier to its expanded influence in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Alongside Iran’s efforts to install its allies from Iraq’s former opposition parties as the new rulers of Iraq, make the country a client state, and ensure that it never again militarily threatened Iran, Iranian operatives and their Iraqi allies paid visits to some of their old enemies from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The battlefield was no longer in the skies over Iran, but rather in the streets of Iraq’s cities and towns.

As Iraq descended into chaos and increasing violence between 2003 and 2005, the first reports of former Iraqi Air Force pilots being assassinated appeared in the media. According to one retired officer, by October 2005, no fewer than 23 had been assassinated since the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Detailed information on the attackers and their motivation was difficult to obtain, but the families of victims blamed groups connected to Iran, along with elements within the Kurdish peshmerga in the initial wave of attacks. In the case of the latter attributed to Iraqi Kurds, the attacks were believed to be revenge for the role played by the Iraqi Air Force in the Anfal campaigns and most infamously, the gassing of Halabja. Nevertheless, Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani offered the former pilots protection in areas of northern Iraq under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government, explaining that “Pilots are not guilty of crimes committed by the former regime, they only obeyed criminal orders. Had they disobeyed they would have been immediately executed.”

Within days, it became clear that the rate of assassinations was increasing. The attackers were also targeting some of Iraq’s best former pilots, including those who never participated in operations against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Ismael Saeed Fares, known as “the Hawk of Baghdad,” earned numerous medals while flying missions against Iran and became a well-known Iraqi war hero during the 1980s. Early in 2005, he was murdered outside his home in north Baghdad by a gunman who shot him in the chest 24 times. As the Sunday Telegraph reported, “The organized manner in which the murders have been carried out, each with multiple shots fired from an AK-47, has fueled suspicions that elements within Iraq’s Iranian-linked government are behind them.”

By April 2006, the assassinations were clearly part of a coordinated campaign. Official Iraqi government statistics shared with the media recorded the assassination of at least 182 former pilots and 416 senior military officials since January 2006 alone. At least 836 former pilots and military officials had fled Iraq for safety in neighboring Arab countries. Militiamen from the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq’s (SCIRI) Badr Brigade, “who now form the backbone of Iraq’s police and special forces,” as was reported at the time, were believed responsible for many if not most of the killings. The previous week, the body of former pilot and Major-General Suad Bahaa al-Deen was found near Baghdad’s Sadr City. His hands had been cut off, his head had a bullet hole and axe wounds, and neck a hole from an electric drill. Amidst Iraq’s spiraling sectarian violence, these were all trademarks of Shiʿite Islamist death squads, many of whom had infiltrated the blown-out institutions of the former Baʿthist state and were operating with impunity. As recently as March 2006, gunmen wearing the uniforms of Interior Ministry commandoes kidnapped and disappeared 20 former pilots in central Baghdad, in a raid conducted in broad daylight. The ministry officially denied involvement, but sources stated the commandoes came from its major crime unit.

By 2008, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security was reportedly offering $50,000 for the killing of any pilot who had participated in operations against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. The widow of one murdered pilot stated, “My husband was one of Iraq’s best pilots and he played a very active role in the bombing of Tehran.” In other instances, former pilots who could prove they had not fought against Iran were spared by gunmen, eventually ransomed instead. Although her husband was later killed while trying to flee Iraq, the widow of another former pilot explained her husband only graduated from the military academy two months after the war with Iran ended in August 1988. As she told The National, “They said if he really had not graduated into the air force until after the war he would be set free. But if he had taken part in any bombing on Iran he would be killed.”

The subject received media attention again in 2010, when Wikileaks released a 2009 diplomatic cable. In the cable, an Iraqi source implicated the Badr Brigade, stated that 180 assassinations had already taken place, and explained, “Many former Iraqi fighter pilots who flew sorties against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War were now on Iran’s hit-list.” Although much of the earlier reporting framed the assassination campaign in terms of sectarianism, follow-up coverage underscored its state-sponsored nationalist motivations. Former pilot Sayyid Hussein, a Shiʿite was murdered in a daylight hit during which 30 rounds were fired into his head.

In early coverage of the assassination campaign, the family of murder victims suspected that Iran and its Iraqi allies were using the Ministry of Defense records from Saddam’s regime to hunt down former pilots. The US military is generally presumed to have captured the Ministry of Defense’s archives, which ended up in the larger collection of Iraqi documents studied by the Iraq Survey Group and stored by the US Central Command in Doha, Qatar. In April 2003, the US military undoubtedly had faced stiff competition in the scramble for former regime documents.

While it is quite possible the US military did not secure all of the Ministry of Defense’s archives, another possibility is that Shiʿite death squads gained access to them through their pervasive infiltration of the Iraqi state’s institutions and ostensible cooperation with coalition forces.

In an attempt to restore order and staunch the consequences from the decision to disband the Iraqi military in 2003, along with reversing the sectarian excesses of de-Baʿthification, the US military and Central Intelligence Agency utilized documents captured from Saddam’s regime in efforts to recruit former members of the military and intelligence services. In April 2005, the Badr Brigade’s Bayan Jabr, aptly described as “The Minister of Civil War,” took over Iraq’s Interior Ministry. As sectarian killings increased each month, in October 2005, when the assassination of former pilots was first reported, the campaign kicked off in earnest in the largely Shiʿite neighborhood of Karradah, where 36 pilots were gunned down. Residents referred to the period as “Black Ramadan,” as the ninth Islamic month began on October 5th that year. Hunting down former pilots who had bombed Iran was not the only retribution campaign being run in coordination with Jabr’s interior ministry during this period. In November, US soldiers discovered the Jadriya Bunker, where the Badr Brigade was holding and torturing former pilots, likely of Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, which were decisive in crushing the March 1991 uprising against Saddam’s regime in southern Iraq.[1]

While it is possible Iran and its Iraqi allies were aided in their campaign to assassinate former Iraqi Air Force pilots who had fought against Iran through gathering Saddam regime documents, ostensible cooperation with US occupation authorities, human contacts in the Iraqi population at large, or a combination of all three, they may have been aided by another older source of information as well. When many of Iraq’s best warplanes and pilots flew to Iran in January 1991, Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Kamal Kharrazi, stated that the pilots were being interrogated and “interned under Geneva Convention rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war.”

Although the pilots were allowed to return home to Iraq at the end of the 1990-1991 Gulf War (in sharp contrast to Iraqi Navy personnel held in Iran as late as 1993), 1998 coverage of the issue of Iraq’s warplanes still held in Iran gave some hints about the interrogation Iraqi pilots received upon landing in Iran. According to Wafiq al-Sammara’i, former Director of the General Military Intelligence Directorate who had defected and was living in England by 1998, upon their return home, Iraqi pilots reported having been subjected to extensive questioning at the hands of Iranian interrogators. These questions included, “How many medals did you get from the Iran-Iraq War?” and “What Iranian targets did you attack during the Iran-Iraq War?” Sammara’i’s quotes for the article match the account from his memoirs, which also mention “Do you want to return to Iraq??!” as being among the questions posed to Iraqi pilots by Iranian interrogators.[2] In the end, the few pilots who chose to defect to Iran at that time may very well have saved their own lives.

Flying Back to the Future

On August 5, 2007, the commander of Iraq’s Air Force, Lieutenant-General Kamal al-Barzanji spoke with reporters about Iraqi warplanes flown to Iran in 1991, saying, “Until now we have not brought back any aircraft… But we hope we could bring back some of these aircraft to Iraq.” Even before many were buried under sand in 2003, most of Iraq’s 300 or so warplanes that survived the 1990-1991 Gulf War suffered from the lack of spare parts due to sanctions and were grounded by the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq until 2003. By 2007, the Iraqi Air Force only possessed 45 reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with helicopters. Without irony, Reuters reported, “Pilots from Saddam’s time form the backbone of efforts to create a new air fleet, although U.S. Brigadier-General Bob Allardice, commander of the air force transition team, said a program to train new aviators had begun.” As this article has suggested, beyond the problem of not possessing any operable warplanes, in 2007, it was questionable how many former pilots with wartime military experience remained alive or had not fled Iraq.

Iraq’s process of purchasing US F-16s, along with training pilots to fly them, extended over the next several years. The first batch of F-16s arrived in Iraq in July 2015, more than a year into the war against ISIS. As some of Iraq’s old warplanes began returning from Iran during the previous summer of 2014, they were almost certainly flown by Iranian Air Force pilots, or those of the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the preceding years, Iran’s campaign of score settling had killed many of Iraq’s best pilots who had served during the Iran-Iraq War. The campaign may have had a geopolitical motive as well, in keeping with Iran’s broader strategy of preventing the rebuilding of Iraqi conventional military power and ensuring the country’s  continued subservience to Iran. In the event the new Iraqi state had emerged as a strong US political ally in the region, the presence of Iran’s militia allies would serve as a check on the conventional military. Alongside Iran possessing some of Iraq’s best surviving warplanes, killing many of its pilots ensured that the Iraqi Air Force would not be a force capable of being used against Iran in the foreseeable future. The inability of the Iraqi Air Force’s Cessna aircraft equipped with Hellfire missiles to check the advance of ISIS in 2014 revealed its institutional weakness and Iraq’s dependance on external sources of air support. As a result, Iran in the form of some of Iraq’s old warplanes, followed shortly thereafter by the US-led coalition under Operation Inherent Resolve, stepped in to fill the void, effectively becoming Iraq’s air force. Although it is unclear what the exact role of Iraq’s repatriated planes, particularly the squadron of Su-25s, played in the longer war against ISIS, the 2016-2017 battle to retake Mosul relied extensively on US and international coalition air power.

While it has become a truism to note the connections of Iraq’s four decades of armed conflict, nearly three of which have directly involved the United States, this article’s concluding discussion of the Gulf War(s) odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, warplanes, and pilots speaks to the past’s looming presence in more recent events. The first part of this article also juxtaposed contemporary news coverage alongside memoirs of participants and records captured from Saddam’s regime to confirm certain aspects of one of the 1990-1991 War’s stranger episodes, along with yielding new insights. Drawing on Iraqi, Iranian, and American sources has permitted a more detailed and complete picture than was possible previously. More important than tracing the journey of the aircraft has been the potential consequences noted for the people involved in this story. Thirty years since the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, it is a small but important chapter in the wider history that has unfolded and continues to unfold for the United States, Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East.

 


[1] This incident is recounted in detail in Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 186-187.

[2] Wafīq al-Sāmmarā’ī, Ḥuṭām al-Bawwāba al-Sharqiyya [Ruins of the Eastern Gate] (Kuwait: al-Qabas Publishing House, 1997), 266.

About the Author

Michael Brill

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History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program strives to make public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, to facilitate scholarship based on those records, and to use these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more