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- Aug 14, 2009
TIKRIT: Iraq is to relaunch its air force which was decimated in the 1991 Gulf War and to train pilots for a squadron of 18-24 fighter planes, Defence Minister Abdel Qadr Obeidi announced on Wednesday.
Obeidi said at the reopening of the air force academy in Tikrit, in northern Iraq, that the facility would produce a new generation of pilots, navigators and ground crew.
"We are turning a new page in the history of the Iraqi air force," the minister said as he attended the arrival of four US-built T-6A trainer aircraft piloted by Iraqi instructors.
Under a 210-million-dollar joint venture between the two countries, Iraq is due to receive another four T-6As at the end of January, followed by seven more in December.
The United States is also to provide flight simulators and training, which is to begin for Iraqi instructors in January before they take on their first students at the end of next year.
The Americans are to erect a 36-metre (120-foot) control tower by mid-2010 and a training centre in Kirkuk will be moved to Tikrit, which is to have 60 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Obeidi said the country would have a squadron of between 18 and 24 fighter aircraft by the end of 2011, when the US military is due to have completed its withdrawal, to support the infantry and defend Iraqi airspace.
The Tikrit academy trained hundreds of pilots before the 1991 war over Kuwait. Iraq's air force, at its peak in 1987, was 40,000-strong with a 950-plane fleet, mostly Soviet-built but also French Mirage aircraft.
The academy, which was founded by the British in 1931, virtually ceased to exist 60 years later when most of the Iraqi air force was destroyed and the US-led allies imposed "no-fly zones" for Iraq's warplanes.
During the US-led invasion of 2003 which toppled Saddam Hussein, the American army occupied the academy.
"Today marks an important step toward the reconstruction of the Iraqi air force and the restoration of the country's security," said US General Michael Barbero at the Tikrit ceremony.