The Many Closures And Violations Of Iraq’s Airspace

BAGHDAD, IRAQ – APRIL 14: The empty roads leading to Baghdad International Airport are seen as Iraq … [+] has announced the closure of its airspace following drone attacks from Iran against Israel, in capital Baghdad, Iraq on April 14, 2024. (Photo by Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Anadolu via Getty Images

Iraq was one of the regional countries that temporarily closed off its airspace to civil aviation on April 13, 2024, amidst Iran’s massive, unprecedented drone and missile attack against Israel. Flight trackers showed the country’s airspace empty of commercial airliners for hours.

While many of the missiles and drones crossed through Iraqi airspace, Iraq did not join the United States, Britain, France, and neighboring Jordan in intercepting any of them. Nevertheless, an American Patriot battery in Iraqi Kurdistan intercepted one ballistic missile, and U.S.-led coalition jets entered Iraqi airspace to shoot down many of the slower-moving drones. Less than a week later, Israeli fighter jets entered Iraqi airspace and fired air-launched ballistic missiles at an air defense radar in central Iran.

Given its strategic position in a region long known for its volatility, Iraq has found its airspace repeatedly violated over the decades. Iraq has also repeatedly closed off its airspace for political and military reasons down through the decades and, in turn, had external closures imposed upon it.

Screenshot of Flightrader24 app showing Iraqi airspace empty of civilian airliners in the early … [+] hours of April 14, 2024, hours after Iran launched an unprecedented missile and drone attack against Israel.

Flightrader24 screenshot

It’s worth briefly recounting several of these historical incidents to put April’s brief closure in perspective.

In May 1959, Iraqi fighter jets forced an Italian DC6B airliner to land in Baghdad as it was flying through Iraqi airspace on a flight from Tehran to Athens “for violation of Iraqi airspace.” Reportage at the time noted that Iraq required passenger planes crossing its airspace to adhere to follow specific corridors. The early incident aptly underscored Iraqi sensitivity to even mild or accidental violations of its airspace.

Iraq would go on to ban certain overflights of its territory for political reasons. For example, in 1971, Iraq closed its borders with Jordan and briefly banned Jordanian planes from using its airspace in protest of King Hussein’s crackdown on Palestinian guerrillas the year before, the Black September incident.

In June 1978, Iraq announced it wouldn’t authorize Soviet planes flying to Ethiopia to land on its territory or use its airspace. Moscow had flown over $1 billion worth of arms to Ethiopia in the preceding year, and many of these flights used Iraqi airspace.

Between 1959 and 1962, Baghdad alleged that Turkish planes committed 15 violations of its airspace. The most serious occurred in August 1962, when Baghdad accused Turkey of sending fighters over 40 miles into Iraqi airspace, shooting down an Iraqi plane and killing its pilot. Iraq accused Turkey of committing “savage aggression.”

Turkey briefly carried out fighter patrols along the Iraqi border with sorties every half hour that month. It justified the patrols in response to an attack by Iraqi planes four miles inside Turkey that killed two gendarmes. A Turkish American-built F-100 Super Sabre intercepted Iraqi aircraft over its territory hitting one, which crashed inside Iraq. Turkey promptly ended the border patrols “in the interest of good neighborly relations.”

In the mid-1970s, during the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War, Iraq charged that Iran’s air force had violated its airspace in a “flagrant and premeditated fashion.” Iran, then under the rule of the last shah, had backed Kurdish rebellions against Baghdad, funneling arms and money to Kurdish rebels and supporting them with cross-border artillery strikes. However, the shah decided to strike a deal with Iraq in 1975 and dropped Iran’s military support to the Iraqi Kurds.

After the Iranian Revolution deposed the shah four years later, Saddam Hussein, having taken over as Iraq’s undisputed ruler that year, invaded Iran in September 1980, igniting a war that lasted eight years and left approximately a million dead. From the first days of the war, Iranian jets would routinely bomb Iraq, with its F-4 Phantoms often flying extremely close to the ground and deep inside Iraqi airspace. In a daring attack on April 4, 1981, Iranian jets bombed the enormous H-3 Iraqi Air Force base in western Iraq’s Anbar province, destroying over 40 aircraft and suffering no losses.

The Iranian Air Force wasn’t the only regional air force to launch strikes deep inside Iraq during that bloody war. Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in Baghdad using a strike package of F-16s escorted by F-15s in June 1981. The following December, two Israeli fighters briefly violated Iraqi airspace near the Saudi border but retreated after the Iraqis detected them.

In an incident that wasn’t disclosed until 2012, the Iraqi and Turkish air forces would briefly duel again on September 14, 1983. Unlike the August 1962 incident, this time, the Iraqis would afflict a loss against Turkey. The incident occurred over Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iraqi-Turkish border. Two Turkish jets, F-100F Super Sabres, violated Iraqi airspace and were intercepted by a French-built Iraqi Mirage F-1EQ, which shot down one of the Turkish Sabres with a Super 530F-1 missile. The pilot survived and was returned to Turkey, which kept the embarrassing incident under wraps.

Another noteworthy incident involved Iraq’s neighbor Syria, with which Baghdad often had strained ties. In April 1987, a Soviet-built Syrian MiG-21 Fishbed accidentally strayed into Iraqi airspace and was shot down. The incident occurred during a thaw in Iraq-Syria relations, so it did not lead to tensions between Damascus and Baghdad. The former merely lamented that the shoot down was “unjustified.”

The Iran-Iraq War ended in August 1988. The following January, Iraq announced it would reopen its airspace to civilian flights from Iran for the first time since 1980. But peace was not about to prevail in the Persian Gulf region.

Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990 saw Iraq facing unprecedented isolation. The United States formed a multinational coalition to expel Iraq’s forces from Kuwait. The Iraqi military was unprepared to face the juggernaut and technological superiority of the U.S.-led coalition.

During the opening of Operation Desert Storm, U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers dominated news broadcasts as they bombarded Baghdad. The coalition succeeded in promptly destroying Iraq’s French-built KARI command, control, and communications system that integrated Iraq’s vast network of primarily Soviet-built surface-to-air missiles.

While the precision-guided munitions of the coalition garnered much attention and adulation during that war, civilians were not entirely spared. The bombing of an air-raid shelter in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, using PGMs, killed over 400 Iraqi civilians sheltering there after the U.S. said it had mistaken it for a command center.

During the Package Q Strike, dozens of F-16s and F-117s repeatedly bombed Iraq’s Tawaitha nuclear research facility, where the Osirak reactor was located in the face of heavy Iraqi air defenses.

While the Persian Gulf War officially ended with a ceasefire on February 28, 1991, the U.S. established sizable no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq after Saddam Hussein sent helicopter gunships to crush simultaneous Kurdish and Shia revolts ruthlessly. These no-fly zones would remain in place until 2003 when the U.S. outright invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam’s regime.

Israel, which sat out the Gulf War despite Iraq bombarding its cities with Scud missiles, sent F-15 fighters over northern and western Iraq, where they searched for any remaining Scuds, in October 1991. Baghdad predictably denounced the overflight as a “grave violation of Iraqi airspace.”

Saddam’s forces, severely degraded by the Gulf War, would intermittently challenge the no-fly zones with little success throughout their existence. The U.S. would also carry out intermittent strikes against beleaguered Iraqi forces, including operations Desert Strike in September 1996 and Desert Fox in December 1998.

Iraq’s vice president declared in December 1998 “that any violation of Iraqi airspace will be met by Iraqi fire.” U.S. jets overflying southern Iraq fired at four Iraqi MiGs testing the enforcement of the zone the following month but failed to down any. Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery were later fired at coalition jets in the southern zone again in February 2001.

Iraq never proved capable of shooting down any coalition jets during the no-fly zone period. It buried the remainder of its fighter jets, including its fast MiG-25 Foxbats, which had proven capable of evading coalition missiles, on the eve of the 2003 invasion. In a rare incident on December 23, 2002, an Iraqi MiG-25 shot down an American MQ-1 Predator drone armed with short-range, air-to-air Stinger missiles after both exchanged fire.

In the run-up to the invasion, Iraqi airspace was full of surveillance aircraft, including American U-2 and French Mirage IV spy planes, looking for any evidence that Iraq retained any weapons of mass destruction.

“With so many Western aircraft aloft in a country where coalition F-15s already patrol the northern and southern ‘no-fly’ zones, Iraq appears to have all but surrendered its skies to foreign air power,” observed a February 2003 news report.

From June 2002 right through to the March 2003 invasion, Operation Southern Watch, the no-fly zone covering southern Iraq, transitioned into the more proactive Operation Southern Focus. The latter operation saw the coalition respond more forcefully to Iraqi violations, aiming to degrade and destroy much of Iraq’s remaining air defenses ahead of the invasion.

In the lead-up to the invasion, the U.S. even briefly hired Israelis who had previously lived in Iraq and understood the Iraqi Arabic dialect well. They boarded a surveillance plane that flew high over Iraq to listen to radio traffic from the Iraqi military. Those Israelis concluded that Saddam’s remaining forces would not likely put up much of a fight and that many Iraqi soldiers would flee or surrender.

The U.S. proceeded with its invasion, bombarding Iraq again and rapidly advancing on and capturing Baghdad as the remnants of the Iraqi Army melted away.

The U.S. retained troops in Iraq until December 2011, peaking at approximately 160,000 deployed during the surge in 2007. Throughout that period, it de facto controlled Iraqi airspace, especially now that Iraq essentially had no air force left, which remained the case for many years.

“The U.S. military has hurriedly tried to turn over square mile after square mile of territory to Iraqi soldiers and police officers, but it has yet to yield control of a cubic inch of the country’s skies,” noted a 2006 report.

In 2008, the U.S. negotiated a security pact with the Iraqi government that would set the legal basis for America’s troop presence in the country. Significant obstacles to a pact included agreement on the status of U.S. bases in the country and America’s use of Iraqi airspace.

On February 25, 2009, U.S. aircraft shot down an Iranian drone flying an estimated 60 miles northeast of Baghdad after tracking it for an hour. The fact it didn’t inform Baghdad aptly demonstrated who controlled Iraq’s skies at the time. Under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the U.S. was tasked with protecting Iraqi airspace for three years.

By the end of the 2000s, the Iraqi Air Force had little, aside from cargo planes and propellor-driven Cessna AC-208B, capable of firing AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Many of its pilots, who had served in the old air force, dreamed of the day they would finally fly F-16s.

The United States unceremoniously withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in December 2011. However, U.S. forces would not be gone for long.

In June 2014, the Islamic State, commonly known by the acronym ISIS, group infamously overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and declared a territory spanning large swathes of contiguous Syrian and Iraqi territory, including one-third of the latter. The same month, a Syrian airstrike targeted ISIS militants at an Iraqi border crossing, but not on the Iraqi side. Baghdad welcomed the strike at the time as beneficial for both countries.

The U.S. intervened with airstrikes in August 2014 when ISIS militants attacked Iraqi Kurdistan and subjected the Yezidi minority in the Sinjar region to a vicious campaign of genocide.

U.S. airstrikes began against ISIS extended into Syria the following month. Unlike the case in Syria, the strikes in Iraq had the authorization of the Iraqi government. From the get-go, the Obama administration expressed reluctance over becoming Iraq’s de-facto air force. But Iraq sorely lacked fighter jets at the time and was thus heavily reliant on coalition air support.

The U.S. would also form a multinational coalition, mostly of Arab and European states, to rollback the ISIS-controlled territory with local forces, primarily the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and, in Syria, Kurdish-led forces that would form under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015.

Iraq did begin receiving F-16 fighter jets in mid-2015, but it would take years still to rebuild its air power, with the F-16 fleet suffering chronic maintenance issues into the early 2020s.

In December 2014, Iranian F-4 Phantom fighter jets briefly entered Iraqi airspace to target ISIS positions near the Iranian border. Tehran also transferred Su-25 attack planes to Baghdad in June 2014. Ironically, those Soviet-era planes the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam previously operated these planes, flying them to Iran during the Gulf War.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-led coalition carried out the bulk of anti-ISIS airstrikes, and ISIS was declared territorially defeated in Iraq by the end of 2017, with Mosul recaptured in July of that year after a ferocious months-long urban war.

In a turnaround from the June 2014 Syria border airstrike, the Iraqi Air Force began targeting ISIS in Syrian territory using its F-16s in 2017 and 2018.

Russia would intervene in Syria’s civil war in late September 2015, deploying fighter-bombers to the civil war-torn country at the invitation of Damascus. In November of that year, Moscow also flexed its muscles by launching cruise missiles at Syria from warships in the Caspian Sea. Some of these missiles flew over Iraq, prompting Baghdad to briefly close the airspace over the country’s Kurdish north “to protect travelers and because of the crossing of cruise missiles and bombers in the northern part of Iraq launched from the Caspian Sea.”

Iraq would close off the airspace of Iraqi Kurdistan for a much different reason less than two years later. On September 25, 2017, the Kurdish authorities in the autonomous enclave held an independence referendum, which received an overwhelming yes vote. Baghdad promptly closed Iraqi Kurdistan’s airspace to all civil flights, demanding regional authorities transfer the region’s two international airports and international border crossings to federal authorities. Iraqi forces also recaptured disputed territories, including Kirkuk and Sinjar, from the Peshmerga the following month.

Baghdad lifted the flight ban the following March. However, Turkey would continue a ban of its own against the Kurdish city of Sulaimani, alleging the leading party there was providing sanctuary for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, more commonly known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. That ban would extend until January 2019. It wouldn’t be the last of its kind.

During the summer of 2019, three suspected Israeli air or drone strikes targeted sites used by Iran-backed Iraqi militias across the country. Following these strikes, the Iraqi government banned unauthorized flights in Iraqi airspace. It restricted the U.S.-led coalition air operations in the country, requiring it to first obtain direct approval from Baghdad before carrying out any strikes against ISIS remnants in the country.

Tensions between Iraq would flare again after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad International Airport in January 2020. Iraqi parliamentarians angrilydemanded the expulsion of U.S. forces. Russia once again pitched its long-range S-400 Triumf air defense missile system to Iraq, claiming it could provide “reliable protection of airspace.”

Iraq acquired medium-range Pantsir-S1 air defenses from Moscow in the 2010s, but these have limited utility for defending its entire airspace. As previously speculated here, Baghdad may turn to South Korea for its advanced, medium-range KM-SAM air defense system to upgrade its limited air defenses. A subsequent unconfirmed report claimed Iraq is interesting in eight of these systems as part of a deal valued over $2 billion.

Iraq would again temporarily close its airspace to civil flights in 2021 ahead of nationwide parliamentary elections.

In April 2023, Turkey imposed another flight ban on Sulaimani, announcing in June that it would extend it for another six months. More alarmingly, a suspected Turkish drone targeted Kurdish counterterrorism forces at a military airfield in Sulaimani province in September 2023, killing three and wounding three. Iraq’s military spokesperson noted the drone entered Iraqi airspace from Turkey’s border, declaring Baghdad “reserves the right to put an end to these violations.”

Less than a fortnight after the April Iranian attack on Israel and subsequent Israeli response, Iraq celebrated the 93rd anniversary of the establishment of its air force, showcasing its F-16s, a sign of its gradually reconstituted national air power.

In May, the Iraqi Ministry of Transport announced implementation of an agreement to reduce airspace allocated for U.S.-led coalition military flights, increasing airspace for civilian aviation.

Just this Sunday, the commander of Iraq’s newly established Air Defense Command told local media that the command’s operations center has “a high potential to control Iraqi airspace with all types of military and civilian aircraft.” Additionally, the official added, “the center will exercise command and complete control over Iraqi airspace.”

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