Iraq receives first batch of Russian jets

Iraq receives first batch of Russian jets

BAGHDAD - Agence France-Presse
Iraq receives first batch of Russian jets

Russian Sukhoi SU-25 plane arrives at the al-Muthanna Iraqi military base in Baghdad airport, June 28. REUTERS Photo

Iraq said it received the first batch of Sukhoi warplanes from Russia as it pressed a counter-attack June 29 against Sunni militants whose offensive threatens to tear the country apart.

The arrival of the fighter jets comes with Iraqi forces, backed by aerial cover, pushing to retake the militant-held city of Tikrit and world leaders urging a speeding up of government formation following elections in April.

The newly-purchased Su-25 ground attack jets are expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible, bolstering Iraq's air power as it combats a sweeping offensive by militants, led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that has killed more than 1,000 people and sparked a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands displaced.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on June 26 announced that Baghdad was buying more than a dozen of the warplanes from Russia in a deal that could be worth up to $500 million.

While Washington has begun sending military advisers to help Iraqi commanders and is flying armed drones over Baghdad, Iraqi officials have voiced frustration that multi-billion dollar deals for U.S.-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have not been expedited.

Iraqi forces have for days been pressing a campaign to retake Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, which fell to the militants on June 11.

Thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and bomb disposal units, have been engaged in the battle for the city - with air strikes adding firepower to the counter-offensive.

According to Maliki's security spokesman, Iraqi forces are coordinating with U.S. advisers over "important targets" of the air attacks.

The spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive was launched on June 9, while the UN puts the overall death toll at over 1,000, mostly civilians.

The U.S. has publicly pushed for political reconciliation and while it has stopped short of calling for the premier to go, it has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in late-2011.

U.S. officials have also said a proposed $500-million plan to arm and train moderate rebels in neighbouring Syria could also help Iraq fight ISIL, which operates in both countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on June 28 in Damascus, meanwhile, that Moscow "will not remain passive to the attempts by some groups to spread terrorism in the region."   

"The situation is very dangerous in Iraq and the foundations of the Iraqi state are under threat." Ryabkov, whose country is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main backer, did not elaborate on what steps Russia might take.

World leaders have insisted on a political settlement among Iraq's Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered among the country's Shiite majority, has urged political leaders to quickly form a government after parliament convenes on July 1.

Maliki, who has publicly focused on a military response to the crisis, has acknowledged that political measures are also necessary, but politicians have nevertheless cautioned that naming a new cabinet could still take a month or more.

Despite unity calls, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in particular has said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other areas from which federal forces withdrew as the insurgents advanced.