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Originally published Monday, August 31, 2009 at 12:05 AM

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Fighter jets from Iraq air force found in Serbia

The Defense Ministry revealed Sunday that it had recently learned Iraq owns 19 MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters, which are in storage in Serbia. Ministry officials are negotiating with the Serbs to restore and return the aircraft.

The New York Times

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials have discovered that they may have a real air force, after all.

The Defense Ministry revealed Sunday that it had recently learned Iraq owns 19 MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters, which are in storage in Serbia. Ministry officials are negotiating with the Serbs to restore and return the aircraft.

The Serbian government has tentatively promised to make two of the aircraft available "for immediate use," according to a news release from the ministry. The rest would be restored on a rush basis.

An Iraqi delegation went to Serbia as part of an effort by the government to locate assets stashed abroad by Saddam Hussein to evade sanctions. Serbia had friendly relations with Saddam's government.

During that visit, Serbian defense officials told the Iraqis that Saddam had sent 19 fighter jets to Serbia for repairs in the late 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, but was unable to bring them back after sanctions were imposed on his country.

The Web site of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, the leading Shiite political party, quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari as saying the discovery of the aircraft was important because Iraq had no jet aircraft with defensive or offensive capabilities. "Our air force only has helicopters," he said.

The American military's training command has recently arranged for the delivery of Iraq's first jet aircraft trainer, the propeller-driven T-6, in December. The T-6 is used to train pilots for the F-16 jet, but plans for Iraq to purchase F-16s are still in the discussion stage, U.S. officials say.

Lt. Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the Multi-National Transition and Security Command-Iraq, or MNTSC-I, the U.S. military's training wing, said the discovery of the Iraqi-owned MiGs would not alter any U.S. plans, at least not immediately. Saddam's government, which in 1990 had the world's sixth-largest air force with 750 aircraft, lost many MiGs and French Mirages when the United States bombed them during the first Gulf War; nearly 100 were flown to Iran to escape destruction, even though Iran was then an enemy of Iraq. Iran has still not returned the aircraft, despite otherwise warm relations between the two countries now, saying they were war reparations for the Iran-Iraq war.

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