Over­shad­owed Iraqi avi­a­tion takes on IS

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Iraqi army pi­lot Hos­sam Jas­sim banked his he­li­copter sharply to the left as a Rus­sian­made Mi-35 gun­ship fly­ing along­side un­leashed a mis­sile at a sus­pected Is­lamic State group tar­get. An ex­plo­sion flashed in the desert vil­lage be­low and a huge plume of sand and dust rose into the sky. Jas­sim gave a thumbs up. “It was a pickup truck with a heavy ma­chine gun,” he said later as he emerged from the cock­pit at Qayyarah base, around 50 km south of ji­hadist bas­tion Mo­sul. “There were about 10 fight­ers,” he said.

Down on the ground Iraqi forces are bat­tling to wrest back Mo­sul, tightening the noose in the sur­round­ing desert and grind­ing their way street-by-street through res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods. Mean­while, in the skies above there is a wide ar­ray of hard­ware back­ing them up. Dom­i­nat­ing at­ten­tion have been the jets, drones and he­li­copters from the US-led coali­tion of for­eign coun­tries that has been pound­ing IS with its awe­some fire­power.

But, in its shadow, Iraq’s fledg­ling avi­a­tion has also been play­ing its own part - car­ry­ing out strikes with far more lim­ited re­sources to back up its troops. Army pi­lot Golan Salim looked out at the roughly dozen he­li­copters - a mix­ture of Rus­sian Mi-28 and Mi-35, Amer­i­can Bell armed re­con­nais­sance chop­pers and Euro­pean EC635s - rest­ing on the tar­mac at the Qayyarah air­base. That morn­ing he said he had flown a mis­sion to take out a group of IS fight­ers with rocket-pro­pelled grenades. “We fin­ished all these tar­gets,” he said. “We have bro­ken them.”

Salim said that the pre­vi­ous day he had to take eva­sive ac­tion as he faced ma­chine gun fire from the ground. De­spite in­creas­ing ef­forts to weaponise drones, the ji­hadists are far from threat­en­ing the air dom­i­nance of their op­po­nents. But they have put up other ob­sta­cles. Bil­low­ing in the mid­dle dis­tance are gi­ant black clouds of smoke from oil fires that IS lit back in Au­gust to ob­fus­cate their retreat as they were pushed from the area. “It is very dif­fi­cult. Once I could not take off,” said Salim. “It is very im­por­tant to shut down the fire.”

Hu­man Shields

The large num­bers of civil­ians that re­main in­side Mo­sul and the towns around still un­der IS con­trols have also placed ma­jor re­straints on the air cam­paign. The United Na­tions has said the ji­hadists have forced tens of thou­sands of lo­cals to march back with them as hu­man shields. Iraq’s air ca­pa­bil­i­ties were wiped out dur­ing the US-led in­va­sion of the coun­try in 2003, and have been re­built from scratch since then with many of the pi­lots trained by Amer­ica. — AFP

ADEN: Ye­meni Pres­i­dent Abedrabbo Man­sour Hadi dis­em­barks from a plane upon his ar­rival at Aden air­port yes­ter­day. — AFP

TALL ABTAH, Iraq: An Iraqi army Mi-35 he­li­copter shoots a mis­sile at an Is­lamic State (IS) group tar­get near this vil­lage near the city of Mo­sul on Fri­day. — AFP

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