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Someone Is Launching Airstrikes on Iraq, But No One Knows Who

Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia, the US — no one really knows who's been bombing Mosul. It's like Secret Santa, but for airstrikes.
Photo by Daniel Martinez

When the history is finally written about this latest bout of fighting in Iraq, it's a safe bet that the ebooks will describe the fighting as the strangest goddamn war/conflict/combat to grace the annals of conflict in quite some time. Take last week's bout of airstrikes in Mosul.

Iraq's second-largest city is currently under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS… or ISIL… or the Islamic State… or the caliphate… or Whatever-the-Hell-You-Want-to-Call-the-Sunni-Extremist-Messiness). It's not all that crazy that Mosul was bombed. What is kind of crazy is that nobody is sure who decided to start bombing Mosul.


In most wars, it's a given that you can figure out who is trying to bomb something — even if the country bombing things doesn't really want to fess up to it. For example, during the Vietnam War, the US didn't want to announce that it was bombing the crap out of Cambodia and Laos. But that didn't stop anyone with a room-temperature IQ from figuring it out. The bombs all fell in Cambodia and Laos, so that solves basic questions about targets. People could also follow the line of reasoning that suggested that the huge B-52 bombing raids launched from Guam were initiated by the US, the only country that operated the B-52 and the proud owners of an airbase on Guam.

But in terms of double-dealing, abject confusion, and deception, Iraq is well on its way to making the Vietnam War look like Blue's Clues.

After the latest round of airstrikes in Mosul, the Washington Post's intrepid reporters tried to puzzle out basic stuff that any reporter in a war zone might want to find out. Questions like "Which countries are actively involved in the blowing-things-up and killing-people portions of this particular war?"

So they called the US and asked if the US knew anything about the airstrikes. The US said no.

So they called the Iraqi government and asked if they knew anything about the airstrikes. The Iraqi government said no.

So they called the Iraqi military and asked if they knew anything about the airstrikes. They didn't return the call.


Pro tip: When figuring out who launched airstrikes against targets in a major urban center starts to sound like "Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar," your war is getting deeply, deeply weird.

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After a while, the reporters were finally able to get in touch with a former Iraqi Air Force pilot who saw some or all of the airstrikes. The pilot said that these weren't carried out by drones, since they didn't sound like drones. Most of the attacks were carried out from planes operating at a high altitude that therefore couldn't be identified from the ground. The pilot did, however, see a US-built C-130 aircraft involved in the strikes. The C-130 is a transport aircraft, not (generally) a ground attack plane. Planes being planes, it's always possible a C-130 could be used to bomb something, albeit very inaccurately. Thus, a C-130 airstrike isn't impossible, just dumb. So it might be the Iraqi military used one as a bomber, but they're too embarrassed to admit it.

Iraq might be using transports because, up until a couple weeks ago, the Iraq Air Force didn't actually have much force to air. A few years ago, Iraq ordered a bunch of US F-16 aircraft and sent its best pilots to the US to train, but neither the planes nor the pilots are currently in Iraq or ready for action. Right now, Iraq does own a respectable collection of attack helicopters, of both US and Russian make. Those attack helicopters have been in fairly regular use in the fight against ISIS for quite some time, but the Mosul residents were able to tell that there were no helicopters involved.


Nobody knows who is flying anything, except there's a dead Iranian pilot involved somehow.

Iraq has an array of small training aircraft and counterinsurgency aircraft. The counterinsurgency aircraft are generally small, one-or-two seat, propeller-powered planes that would fit right in at a small, private airport — except for the missiles and the like. So it's possible Iraq's Air Force is blowing up Mosul using souped-up Cessnas but are ashamed to admit that's the best they can manage.

The sorry state of Iraq's combat aircraft inventory started looking better (and more confusing) recently when Iran, like a good neighbor, finally got around to returning a bunch of jets that used to be Iraqi. Those particular planes became Iranian during the 1991 Gulf War, when a whole bunch of Iraqi pilots decided they didn't want to be shot down by the US-led coalition and took their planes to Iran to sit out the war… and, apparently, the next quarter of a century.

Here's who's fighting in Iraq and why. Read more here.

Iraq has also ordered and received some Su-25 ground attack aircraft that are either Russian or Iranian. Iraq certainly ordered planes from Russia, but the first round of aircraft arrived in a disassembled state. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense then put out a video that it claimed showed more Su-25 aircraft arriving in Iraq. Except those weren't Russian aircraft — they were actually Iranian, but with all the Iranian markings painted over. Which might mean that Iraq is purchasing jets from Russia, but the orders are getting filled with Iranian-owned, Russian-made jets. Or someone in the Iraqi military is just high. Meanwhile, it's also unclear whether the Iranian aircraft advertised as new Iraqi purchases from Russia are the same aircraft that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is deploying to Iraq.


Footage from Iraq's Ministry of Defense shows somebody or another's Su-25 ground attack aircraft landing and taxiing.

But even if Iraq can put enough planes from Iran or Russia or anywhere else on a tarmac to simulate an Air Force parked at an airbase, nobody is really sure who is going to be flying these newly obtained jets. Iraq used to operate the types of planes they've recently acquired, but no Iraqi pilot has flown one since the US invaded in 2003. Even if there's still anyone around who even knows how to fly them, they're probably a bit rusty. The Russians are sending technical experts and swear that the planes they're sending won't be flown by Russians. The Iraqi government also promises the Russians aren't military advisers, either. So make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, Iran hasn't uttered a peep about any Iranians flying in Iraq. But they did just announce the combat death of an Iranian pilot. On the other hand, nobody has reported the loss, shoot-down, or crash of any Iranian aircraft or fighter jets (particularly any Iranian Su-25 jets that may or not be deployed in Iraq).

But if it's not Iraqis, not the US, probably not the Russians, and might not be the Iranians, then who?

Some suspect the Syrians. After all, a couple weeks ago, in an earlier episode of Mystery Airstrike Theater, the Iraqi government finally admitted that Syria was bombing Iraq, but that was okay because that part of Iraq was under ISIS control. But the Syrians probably aren't the culprit in this go around, because Mosul is quite a bit farther away from Syria and probably unreachable without a connecting flight.


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So. If it's Iraqis, they were probably half-assing it with a transport or a tiny counterinsurgency plane. There are a bunch of Iraqi fixed-wing combat aircraft that were all manufactured in Russia, many of which spent varying lengths of time in Iran. Then there are some other Russian-made aircraft that have spent years in Iran and are operating out of Iraq, but aren't actually owned by Iraq. Nobody knows who is flying anything, except there's a dead Iranian pilot involved somehow. And then there are the Syrians and Americans, but they're probably sitting out Mosul's impromptu urban renewal project.

All this aside, a few desultory airstrikes aren't going to change the tide of battle. The odds are pretty high that these aren't targeted attacks against high-value targets in the ISIS command structure. Nobody currently thought to be bombing Iraq is up to that kind of task. The bombing wasn't close air-support intended to immediately affect the situation on the ground, since there aren't major combat operations currently underway in Mosul. Besides, those kinds of missions require actual coordination with the Iraqi military — something hard to do when you're bombing anonymously.

How many US troops are now in Iraq, and what are they doing? Find out here.

This means that the the airstrikes have been mostly symbolic. Since 30,000 Iraqi soldiers turned heel and ran last month when faced with 800 ISIS troops, the Iraqi military has been trying to hold itself together, and is in dire need of both credibility and a morale boost. Airpower can be a helpful part of that — it shows that a military is back on its feet, or can at least operate an airplane. Defense expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was quoted in a recent Bloomberg News article saying, "If you get planes in the sky, it gives you a lot more credibility than you really deserve."

This makes a certain kind of sense. If it turns out that it really was Iran, then letting it be known would erode what little positive effect on Iraqi morale there was to be had from the bombing. If it's just an Iraqi transport aircraft being misused, then maybe the Iraqi Air Force doesn't think that pressing a transport plane into bombing will do much to inspire confidence. Neither of those scenarios contradicts any of the information available so far, so those scenarios are probably as good a guess as any.

So, best as I can tell, somebody (probably from a country whose name begins with I-R-A) just wanted to tell the Iraqi Army Get well soon! Love, your secret admirer! XOXO by anonymously bombing a major Iraqi city. Makes as much sense as anything else going on in Iraq these days.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS