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How Iraq opposition to the US policy in Vietnam made the Iraqi Air Force the second-largest operator of MiG-21s in the Middle East

Not only did the MiG-21 proved to be easy to maintain, but the Soviets were quick to deliver.

Originally ordered in April 1965 by then commander of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) Brigadier-General Arif Abd ar-Razzaq but opposed by his successor General Munir Abbas Hilmi, the MiG-21 acquisition was eventually much welcomed by the air force: not only did the aircraft proved to be easy to maintain (at least unless they had to be sent to the USSR for overhauls), but the Soviets were quick to deliver. As explained by Milos Sipos & Tom Cooper in their book Wings of Iraq Volume 1: the Iraqi Air Force, 1931-1970, following their shipment to Basra in December 1965, they were transferred to Rashid Air Base (AB): combined with a group of 12 pilots that had completed their conversion courses in the USSR, on Jan. 8, 1966 they entered service with the newly-established No. 17 Squadron, commanded by Major Durhit Ibrahim.

Iraq was granted permission to buy 49 additional MiG-21 interceptors in April 1966, after the country president Abd ar-Rahman Arif demonstratively denounced the US policy in Vietnam.

With the type being in munch demand all around the world at the time, when preparing their delivery in response to Arif’s order from April 1966, the Soviets were forced to improvise. Correspondingly, they delivered a total of 22 reconditioned MiG-21F-13s, which originally belonged to the ‘0 series’ of that type. The other 23 aircraft belonged to the MiG-21FL variant, which lacked an internal gun and was armed only with a pair of R-3S missiles. Once again, their deliveries came at an amazing pace: the first batch of MiG-21FLs reached the port of Basra before the end of 1966. The availability of additional MiGs prompted another reorganisation of the IrAF: reinforced by a group of Soviet advisors, No. 17 Squadron began acting as an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Its pilots then converted enough of their colleagues to MiG-21s for Nos, 9, 11 and then the newly established No. 14 Squadrons to work on the type.

Moreover, in the case of Iraq the Soviets proved ready to make an exception to the rule, and to deliver MiG-21PFMs together with the little-known Kh-66 beam-riding guided missile: although this proved unreliable — and, indeed, very dangerous to deploy by a pilot of a single-seat fighter jet — and thus saw very little operational service with the IrAF, it was the first such weapon deployed in the Middle East.

Overall, by the time Brigadier-General Jassam Mohammed ash-Shaher took over as the commander, in September 1966, and within only three years, the IrAF became the second-largest operator of MiG-21s in the Middle East. Such a rapid expansion provides clear evidence of the far-sightedness of earlier IrAF commanders: they took care to expand the Air Force College and its equipment and laid the fundamentals for the future of the force, enabling its further expansion.

Wings of Iraq Volume 1: the Iraqi Air Force, 1931-1970 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

MiG-21FL found by US troops in Iraq, in April 2003.

Photo credit: Tom Cooper and ACIG

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