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Iraqi Air Force Jets Head to the Junkyard

December 8, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Following the Biblical call to turn swords into ploughshares, junkyard owner Ahmad Ali Thalib is converting scrapped jet fighters into pots and pans.

Standing beside the gutted remains of a MiG-25 _ capable of flying nearly three times the speed of sound _ Thalib joked that in recent months he has destroyed more aircraft of the once-proud Iraqi Air Force than had all of its assorted enemies put together. The tons of duraluminium and other metals that are recoverable from each warplane are worth a small fortune to scrap metal dealers in Iraq and neighboring countries.

``We’re also selling to scrap dealers in Lebanon, Turkey and Iran, but some of this ends up as cooking containers for Iraqis,″ he said.

``At least these planes are now useful to people,″ he said tapping on the triangular green national insignia on the MiG’s flank.

The now-defunct Iraqi Air Force was once considered the best in the Arab world. Founded in 1931, it fought in numerous conflicts in the Middle East, battling the British in 1941 and Israel in 1948 and 1967.

Iraq’s armed forces were officially disbanded in May, after the U.S.-led coalition occupied Baghdad and ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Although Washington is now scrambling to set up a new army to deal with an escalating rebellion, there are no immediate plans to resurrect military aviation.

Saddam invested a huge portion of the country’s oil wealth to equip the Air Force, which was used to some effect during the 1980-88 war with Iran. At its zenith in the late 1980s, it listed nearly 750 combat aircraft in its inventory, including Soviet MiGs and Sukhois and French Mirage fighters.

A parallel construction program resulted in a massive expansion of Iraq’s aviation infrastructure. At the end of the war with Iran, the service had no less than 24 fully equipped air bases and about 30 emergency dispersal fields.

But the air force took a beating after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when the U.S.-led aerial onslaught during the first Gulf War severely depleted its ranks. Hundreds of planes either fled to neighboring Iran _ where they were inducted into the Iranian Air Force _ or were destroyed in the fighting.

Subsequent U.N. sanctions only made things worse. Hundreds of planes were cannibalized for spare parts, and by 2002 only 100 airworthy jets remained in squadron service.

One Iraqi MiG-23 was sent for servicing to Yugoslavia before the invasion of Kuwait and has remained there and now is in Belgrade’s aviation museum.

The Air Force played no role in the latest war. Instead, it desperately sought to protect its assets either by hiding them, or burying them in the desert.

After the war, U.S. teams hunting for alleged weapons of mass destruction found dozens of intact fighter jets buried beneath the sand, including the Mach 3-capable MiG-25s. Others were hidden in groves of trees and covered with thick camouflage netting.

Today, hundreds of derelict planes litter abandoned air bases, rusting in the winter rains and providing scrap metal dealers with a bonanza in aluminum and other metals.

Thalib said that the 50 MiG-23s and MiG-25s strewn across the muddy scrapyard on Baghdad’s northern outskirts were once worth nearly a billion dollars. He said he purchased the entire fleet for $150,000 from a contractor engaged by the Americans to clear the derelict aircraft from a former air base.

Workers moved among the plane carcasses, cutting them up with blowtorches and removing aluminum, copper, steel and electrical wiring from fuselages or engine casings.

Scrap aluminum is worth $750 per ton in Iraq, he said, while the going price in neighboring countries is about than three times that.

``No wonder we are so popular,″ Thalib said. ``But just looking at all this makes me very sad. It’s junk now, but it cost the people of Iraq billions of dollars.″

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