The American Coalition Is Providing Close Air Support for Iran’s Militias in Iraq
Iran’s own warplanes have abandoned the war
Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot jets were in Baghdad in late June and, by early July, were bombing Islamic State forces in a desperate bid to halt the militants’ advance through northwestern Iraq.
But the special Su-25s—modified to launch guided weapons and interface with surveillance drones—have quit Iraq. And for air support, Iran’s militias in Iraq now depend on the U.S. and its allies.
Officials suggested the twin-engine attack planes had returned to Iran for maintenance checks. Never mind that Su-25s are rugged planes that rarely need such checks.
The three Su-25s returned home to Shiraz air force base no later than Nov. 12. On Nov. 21, the Sukhois appeared at an airshow on Kish Island, a popular tourist destination.
Perhaps not coincidentally, around the same time that the Iranian jets were leaving Iraq, the U.S. Air Force was deploying a squadron of A-10s—rough equivalents of the Su-25s—to Kuwait for patrols over Iraq.
And now American or allied warplanes are dropping bombs in direct support of Iran’s troops in Iraq.
What’s ironic is that Iran’s supreme leader has called U.S. intervention in Iraq a dubious act—and a cover for covert American support for Islamic State. The Iranian-affiliated Asaib Ahl Al Haq, a Shia militia, went as far as threatening to assassinate all Americans in Iraq “except embassy staff.”
It’s a bizarre arrangement, relying on the help of someone you’re also threatening to kill.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Even before the three Iranian Su-25s arrived in Iraq, Baghdad placed an emergency order with Moscow for 12 Su-25s and some extra Hind attack helicopters.
The plan was simple. The Iraqi air force would assemble a few old pilots from the Saddam Hussein era, retrain them and form a new air force on short notice. The Iranian Su-25s, given their unique abilities, would have been a special contingent within this new air force.
Lack of attention to technical details soon tore the plan apart. It took nearly two months for the Iraqis to clear the Sukhois for flight. And retraining old pilots proved problematic. One of the aviators—Jalil Al Awadi, an Su-22 pilot during Iran-Iraq war—died in a crash in late October.
The Su-25s performed poorly in combat. In one attack meant to sever a crucial bridge east of Tikrit, thus slowing the militants’ advance, an Iraqi Su-25 loosed a volley of lightweight S-8 rockets. The S-8s weren’t nearly powerful enough to damage the four-lane concrete structure.
The Iraqi ministry of defense hasn’t published any reports mentioning its Su-25s in the whole month of November, despite intensive ground combat during the same period.
Even if Shia fighters firmly deny it, the fact is that they now count on the U.S. and its allies for fixed-wing air support. During the Shia assault on Jurf Al Sakhar in late October, the U.S. Air Force carried out approximately two air strikes per day south of Fallujah meant to block Islamic State convoys shuttling reinforcements to Jurf Al Sakhar.
American air support later extended to help Shia forces in their latest attempt to retake Jalawlah near the Iran-Iraq border.
At some point, while they were advancing toward Jalawlah from south, Shia fighters fell into a militant ambush. The Shia troops called in air support—presumably American. A bomb exploded behind a hill, from where Islamic State fighters were firing on the Shia.
BBC-Persian correspondent Nafiseh Kuhnavard also reported several air strikes by allied forces in the area prior to the Shia fighters’ advance. It’s noteworthy that Iran’s top man in Iraq, Gen. Ghassem Soleymani, was present at the Jalawlah battle.
Such close cooperation couldn’t take place without an agreement between Tehran and Washington and some kind of framework outlining engagement protocols, assets in the area, coordinators, etc.