Russia delivers combat aircraft to Iraq; experts wonder whether it will help or hurt

The Iraqi government Friday confirmed that Russia has begun delivery of attack helicopters and warplanes as part of an arms deal intended to bolster the foundering military effort to retake the nearly half of Iraq lost this year to Islamist militants.

Mi-35 helicopter gunships and Su-25 fighter-bombers were hastily added in June to a multibillion-dollar arms deal that had been signed before militants from the Islamic State stormed through northern and central Iraq, eventually driving the crumbling Iraqi army to the gates of Baghdad. Efforts to retake territory, notably in Tikrit and Anbar province to the west of the capital, have been disastrous for the Iraqi army and its Shiite Muslim militia allies, something the government hopes effective air power might change.

Despite reports last month that six Russian Su-25s had been hurriedly rushed to Iraq and that Iran had returned a similar number of the same aircraft that it had seized at the outset of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, there’s been little sign of their use on the battlefield _ likely because, analysts say, there are few trained ground crews, pilots and infrastructure to support the three-decade-old aircraft. An agreement to train Iraqi pilots to fly modern F-16s from the United States appears to have stalled over the security conditions around Iraq’s main airfield in Balad, north of Baghdad. The contractors who were to conduct the training were evacuated when Islamic State forces threatened the base.

Matthew Henman, a military analyst for IHS Janes, the British military consultancy, said that the lack of maintenance on the Iranian and Russian jets first reportedly delivered in June, along with a lack of experienced pilots and ground crews, make it unlikely they “would get any kind of operational use out of those aircraft, if they got them off the ground.”

The additional Russian deliveries announced Friday on Iraqi state television should change that. The refurbished Su-25s as well as advanced Mi-35 attack helicopters presumably will be in flyable condition, adding to the Iraqis’ odd air arsenal that includes helicopters, Cessnas equipped with Hellfire missiles, and improvised “barrel bombs” pushed from cargo planes. The latter are notoriously unguided weapons that have been accused of causing mass civilian casualties in Syria.

But whether that ultimately will help the Iraqi government in Baghdad both push back the Islamic State fighters and win the confidence of Sunni Muslim Iraqis remains uncertain.

Iraq’s record on civilian casualties appears to be no better than Syria’s. Human Rights Watch on Wednesday released a report on civilian deaths from air attacks in Iraq and noted that of 17 documented air attacks, barrel bombs were used in at least six; at least 75 civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in the cases examined.

In another case not included in the Human Rights Watch report but found by McClatchy, five members of a family were killed July 10 about three miles from the besieged oil refinery in Baiji when a jet aircraft bombed their home during fighting. It appears to be the only confirmed case of an Su-25 being flown in combat thus far in the conflict. The bomb it dropped killed Qassem Abu Mohammed al Tikriti and four relatives.

His neighbor, who asked to be called Abu Sayf, said it was an Su-25. “I know what they look like and sound like,” he said. “I fought in the war with Iran and saw them used every day.”

That testimony underscores the risk the addition of more Su-25s to Iraq poses: poorly aimed bombings by fast-moving jets could make the crisis worse politically, even if they add a military advantage.

Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Iraqi jets so far don’t appear to have been equipped with the kind of advanced guided munitions that allow pinpoint targeting.

“Su-25s in Iraq have only been observed armed with two types of unguided bombs along with the 30mm cannon,” he said. It’s likely they also are carrying unguided rockets “but there is no imagery evidence as yet of any precision guided munitions,” he added.

John Drake, an Iraq expert for the United Kingdom-based security firm AKE, says the Iraqi army’s apparent lack of intelligence-gathering ability and its estrangement from the country’s large Sunni Muslim minority has left it blind to much of the country. That makes picking targets extremely risky for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

“Without good intelligence on the ground, the air power is going to involve a high risk of civilian casualties,” Drake said. “This will be very damaging for the reputations of those involved in the air operations and will make it harder to engage key members of the Sunni community in dialogue.”

Andrew Exum, a former U.S. soldier with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and a doctorate from Kings College in London in counterinsurgency, described airstrikes as a “blunt instrument.”

“As we see can see in Gaza, even when air power is used with as much precision as possible, civilians get killed,” he said. “Maliki’s government should be trying to use violence as selectively as possible, because while the Iraqis might bomb (the Islamic State) back into Syria, their bigger problem is a Sunni population in the north and west that feels alienated and abused by its government in Baghdad. A bombing campaign will only make that worse.”