WASHINGTON – Embattled Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disclosed in a BBC interview he is buying second-hand jet fighters from Russia to battle Sunni militant fighters, since his delivery of F-16s from the United States still hasn’t arrived after a protracted wait.
The Iraqis, however, lack the knowledge and experience to fly Russian fighter jets, which means Russian pilots could be used to hit concentrations of fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who continue to take more territory in Sunni-held portions of Iraq.
In addition to solving Iraq’s lack of pilots, Russians will also need to be on hand in Iraq to provide essential support services to maintain the aircraft.
Maliki’s announcement comes after a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin last week in which the Russian president offered to help Iraq fight the al-Qaida-inspired jihadist fighters.
“Putin confirmed Russia’s complete support for the efforts of the Iraqi government to speedily liberate the territory of the republic from terrorists,” a Kremlin announcement said after the phone conversation between the two leaders.
Maliki is closely allied with Iran, which is backing the besieged government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin also supports.
Russia has an interest in the access Syria provides it to the Mediterranean Sea. But Putin and Maliki also share an interest in defeating Sunni jihadists. In Russia, the threat comes primarily from the Muslim-dominated provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Putin’s offer of “complete support” came after a charge by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian that President Obama lacked “serious will” to combat terrorism after Maliki’s urgent request for American airstrikes went unanswered.
“Delaying the fight against terrorism and ISIS and putting conditions on it have fueled suspicion and doubts about the United States’ objectives in Iraq,” Abdollahian said. “Obama’s comments show the White House lacks serious will in fighting terrorism in Iraq and the region.”
In his BBC interview, Maliki said the fighter jets will come from Russia and Belarus after long delays in the delivery of F-16s from the U.S. left his troops without air support.
He said the jets should arrive in Iraq “in two or three days.”
“God willing, within one week this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists’ dens,” Maliki said.
He blamed the U.S. for its “long, very slow way” in delaying the delivery of 36 aircraft which have been on order for some time.
Some 200 U.S. contractors were in Iraq at Balad Air Base to prepare for the F-16s. However, ISIS in recent days has overrun the base.
“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract (with the U.S.),” Maliki said.
“We shouldn’t have just bought U.S. jets. We should have bought British, French and Russian jets to provide air support,” he said. “If we had air support, none of this would have happened.”
Separately, the Syrian air force has flown jet fighters to attack ISIS strongholds in Iraq.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the U.S. was delivering the first of two F-16 aircraft “as quickly as possible” and noted they would be handed over in the fall.
He added that the remaining 200 of a total of 500 Hellfire missiles approved for delivery to Iraq would be sent in a matter of weeks.
ISIS has extended its advances from northeastern Syria into western and central Iraq, taking Mosul and now Tikrit, coming within 30 miles of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, which is just inside the Shiite-controlled region of the country.
As Secretary of State John Kerry winds up his visit to Iraq and heads to Saudi Arabia, there are increasing calls for Maliki to step down due to his resistance to form a more inclusive government of Sunnis and Kurds along with Shiites.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government, has called on Maliki to step aside to allow for the formation of a national unity government to halt the ISIS advance.
Barzani’s Kurdish forces, the peshmerga, recently took advantage of the retreat of Iraqi forces and took land that included Kirkuk, the northern region’s oil hub. He said that his forces will defend against ISIS.
Even Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls the Madhi army, Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, said such an inclusive government needs to be formed “quickly with new faces from all sides.
Sadr has resurrected his Madhi Shiite militia to prepare to fight ISIS should it advance toward Baghdad.
Maliki, however, told the BBC he rejects the notion of a national-salvation government that bypasses constitutional procedures. He said that Iraq can still have a unity government if other parties accept the program that his bloc is proposing.
The program includes “the end of sectarianism and the dismantling of the militias and the gangs.”
Presently, the Sunni jihadist fighters who have aligned with ISIS don’t appear to be on that program.
Maliki has been criticized for sidelining the Sunni minority, many of whom now support ISIS. He blamed the Sunni monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, for supporting ISIS and other Sunni militias that are creating the unrest in his country.