Iran-backed militia threats forced US contractors working on F-16 programme to evacuate Iraq

Iran-backed militia threats forced US contractors working on F-16 programme to evacuate Iraq
The withdrawal of US contractors has previously affected Iraq's ability to fight the Islamic State extremist group from the air.
2 min read
09 May, 2021
The Iraqi military is reliant on US contractors for the maintenance of F-16 jets [Getty]
The threat of rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed militias prompted the evacuation of American contractors working on Iraq's F-16 programme in March, according to a report published this week.

Attacks targeting Iraqi bases hosting US troops and contractors have become more common since the January 2020 killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike.

American contractors working on the maintenance of Iraqi F-16 jets were pulled out from the Balad air base in March, American military outlet Stars and Stripes reported this week.

The Lockheed Martin contractors' evacuation came shortly after a rocket attack hit a coalition airbase in Erbil, killing a Filipino contractor and injuring an American service member in addition to others.

Just days after the attack targeting Erbil International Airport, rockets also hit the Balad air base, which is located north of the capial Baghdad.

A seperate attack on the base last month injured five people, including two foreign contractors. Such attacks are widely blamed on Iran-backed militias, which vowed revenge for Soleimani's killing and seek to force the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq.

The F-16 programme has been an essential part in the Iraqi military's ongoing campaign against the Islamic State group.

The contractors returned to the Balad air base later in March, Stars and Stripes said, but US-led coalition officials believe the attacks are likely to continue and affect the running of the F-16 programme.

Previous rocket attacks have put the F-16s on pause.

Contractors and advisors for the US-led coalition previously evacuated the air base in January 2020 amid fears of reprisals over the killing of Soleimani and members of Iran-backed militias.

That withdrawal and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic meant Iraq's F-16s did not fly any combat missions between April and September last year, according to a report published this week by the Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve.

Although contractors began returning to Balad in September last year, military air advisors are no longer stationed at the base.

The lack of dedicated support has largely kept the F-16s off the coalition's air tasking order, the report said.

All but four of 299 sorties flown by the Iraqi F-16 squadron in the first three months of 2021 were training missions, the report added.

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