By Rod Nordland
The Defense Ministry revealed Sunday that it had recently learned that Iraq owns 19 MIG-21 and MIG-23 jet fighters, which are in storage in Serbia. Ministry officials are negotiating with the Serbs to restore and return the aircraft.
The Serbian government has tentatively promised to make two of the aircraft available "for immediate use," according to a news release from the ministry. The rest would be restored on a rush basis, the ministry said.
An Iraqi delegation went to Serbia as part of an effort by the government to locate assets stashed abroad by Saddam Hussein to evade sanctions. Serbia had had friendly relations with Mr. Hussein’s government.
During that visit, Serbian defense officials told the Iraqis that Mr. Hussein had sent 19 fighter jets to Serbia for repairs in the late 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, but was unable to bring them back after sanctions were imposed on his country.
Iraq immediately sent a technical delegation, led by the air force chief, Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin.
The Web site of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, the leading Shiite political party, quoted the Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari as saying that the aircraft had been sent in 1989 "for maintenance, and everything was paid for by Iraq’s money." Mr. Askari said the discovery was important because Iraq had no jet aircraft with defensive or offensive capabilities. "Our air force only has helicopters," he said.
"Everyone knows how much we need fighter aircraft," the ministry statement said. "We have reached a tentative agreement with the Serbian side to rehabilitate the aircraft and deliver them to Iraq in the shortest possible time, in recognition of Iraq’s need for such aircraft."
The Defense Ministry statement was issued as a rebuttal to Iraqi news reports claiming that secret negotiations were under way with Serbia as part of a corrupt arms deal.
The rebuttal was at times angry, calling the criticism politically motivated and "a broken record which has become boring and funny."
The American military’s training command has recently arranged for the delivery of Iraq’s first trainer for jet pilots, the propeller-driven T-6, in December. The T-6 is used to train pilots for the F-16 jet, but plans for Iraq to buy F-16s are still in the discussion stage, American officials say.
"We are working for the interests of Iraq," Mr. Askari said about the discovery of the Iraqi MIGs in Serbia.
Lt. Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the Multi-National Transition and Security Command-Iraq, or M.N.T. S.C.-I., the American military’s training wing, said the discovery of the Iraqi-owned MIGs would not alter any American plans, at least not immediately. "It’s going to take a while to see what impact it has," he said.
So far, the Iraqi Air Force has only 87 aircraft, mostly transport and reconnaissance planes and helicopters, and only one ground attack aircraft. It has no jets.
Mr. Hussein’s government, which in 1990 had the world’s sixth largest air force with 750 aircraft, lost many MIGs and French Mirages when the United States bombed them during the first Persian Gulf war; nearly 100 were flown to Iran to escape destruction, even though Iran was then an enemy of Iraq. Iran has still not returned the aircraft, despite otherwise warm relations between the two countries now, saying they were war reparations for the Iran-Iraq war.
The Serbian discovery would potentially give Iraq a jet fighter capability long before it could develop one with American aircraft.
American officials cautioned, however, that acquiring the MIGs would just be the beginning of a long process. "It’s more than just getting aircraft; there’s maintenance and support structures, training. It’s not going to change what M.N.T.S.C. -I. does," Colonel Kolb said.
Iraqi officials have been hunting for missing financial and military assets in a number of countries where Mr. Hussein did business, including Egypt, Russia, France and Italy.
They have found two naval vessels belonging to Iraq in Egypt and two others in Italy, and other matériel in France and Russia, Mr. Askari, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
In Belgrade, the B-92 independent news channel quoted officials as saying that Serbia had reached an arms export deal with Iraq that would result in employment for 6,000 workers in six military factories. Last year, the country exported $235 million worth of arms to Iraq.
Riyadh Mohammed contributed reporting.