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Sunday, August 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Iraq's new air force takes to skies
By Todd Pittman
BAGHDAD, Iraq Iraq's new air force has taken to the skies for the first time since the United States invaded last year and disbanded the country's armed forces, the U.S. military said.
Iraqi pilots on Wednesday flew two Seabird Seeker SB7L-360 reconnaissance aircraft on what a U.S. military statement described as "limited operations missions intended to protect infrastructure facilities and Iraq's borders."
The two light reconnaissance planes are fitted with surveillance systems that can transmit live video images to ground forces.
They are the first of a fleet that will eventually number 10 light aircraft of "similar capability," the statement said.
Coalition forces and neighboring Jordan have been training Iraq's 162-member air force, which is expected to grow to about 500 by December.
Former President Saddam Hussein invested a huge portion of the country's oil wealth to equip his air force during the 1980-88 war with Iran. At its height in the late 1980s, it listed nearly 750 combat aircraft, including Soviet MiGs and Sukhois and French Mirage fighters.
In the 1990s, Iraq's air force fell apart due to a war with the United States and years of international sanctions.
British military officials helping form the new force are focusing on map-reading and navigation.
"The old air force had previously placed more of an emphasis on getting airborne before receiving direction from the ground on operational details and destinations," the statement said.
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